A Short Commentary on the Interpretation of Statutes with Regard to Subject & Object


The interpretation of statutes involves having the courts give meaning to a legislative provision, which it believes is the meaning given by the legislature also.

By interpretation or construction is meant, the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the Legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.

There are a number of approaches that may be used in the interpretation of statutes that have been developed by the courts. These approaches may be broadly classified as textualism and purposivism. The former focuses on the symbols on the page i.e. the written words on the statute. The court then proceeds to use dictionaries, maxims and presumptions to figure out the legislation says. Purposivism is when the court goes into finding the aims and objectives of the legislation. The text is then interpreted in a way that fosters its purpose as opposed to strictly adhering to the meaning that appears from the text.

There have been great changes in the method of statutory interpretation by English courts in the second half of the twentieth century. There has been a great increase in the use of a purposive approach to interpretation, particularly in the area of public law, but elsewhere too. This process has been facilitated by recourse to the Parliamentary history of legislation as an aid to interpretation and the modern practice of statements of legislative purpose.

There are, however stringent rules that have been developed in order to interpret statutes that are usually variants of the above stated two general rules. One such rule is the rule relating to interpretation of statutes with regard to the subject and object. Words used by the legislature do not always bear a plain meaning. There may even be disagreement as to whether the words are plain or what the meaning of the word is even it is agreed that it is plain. Thus when this kind of a doubt is created and there may be two or more possible interpretations that may be possible, the subject matter of the legislation and the object it hopes to achieve is to be looked at in order to arrive at the correct meaning.

A competent legal interpretation is one that maintains an appropriate balance between different levels or senses of meaning. In the absence of a single speaker, whose intentions or expectations can be reliably ascertained, a statute can only be accorded an “intended” meaning in the sense of purpose and structure. We can seek the “intention of the statute” by ascribing a meaning to particular provisions that makes sense of its enactment as a purposive communication, consistently construed. The relevant intention is essentially metaphorical, since it does not belong to any particular author, whether draftsman or legislator; but the mode of constructive interpretation its delineation requires is a necessary means of loyal co-operation between judge and Parliament.

The interpretation of statutes with regard to the subject and object is of a general character and it could be said that it is a cardinal rule that must be adhered to while interpreting a statute. The rule is however victim to certain limitations also. The application of this rule is limited to instances where more than two constructions of the language used in the statute are possible. The real question is whether this rule is applicable where the language used is clear and unambiguous. Although it must be taken into account that opinion exists that the contextual background must be examined as a necessity to see whether there is a possibility of two constructions regardless of whether the language seems to be unambiguous or not. Only after examining the language in the light of its context must the meaning emerging from the plain language be used.

Purposive interpretation is increasing in usage in common law although there is an obvious danger of subrogation of the legislative powers. There are also the perils of the purposive interpretation being taken to its extreme. It is noteworthy that purposive interpretation and regard to the context have great usage in the European Community also.

The Community Court relies on contextual and teleological approaches. In the contextual technique, the Court tries to fit the provisions before it into the “grand design” of the treaties in an attempt to divine their meaning. Teleological or purposive” constructions, similarly, attempt to promote what the Court has deduced as the underlying objectives of the provision which might be frustrated by a literal interpretation. The Community Court’s methods of interpretation thus differ dramatically from the British formal approach.

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