Explained: Literal rule of interpretation

In this article, the author has explained the meaning and subtleties of the literal rule of interpretation. The study was supplemented by precedents


Laws are often made by legal experts under the guidance of experts from various fields. Therefore, the wordings or expressions used in these laws can cause confusion or confusion. Interpretation literally means to explain or understand. The main purpose of the interpretation is to facilitate understanding of the various laws and provisions of the law.

For dealing with such ambiguities, Interpretation of the statutes comes into the picture.

Definition of the interpretation of statutes

Salmond gave the definition of the interpretation of the Articles of Association as follows:

  • Interpretation of law is the process by which courts try to understand the meaning of legislation through the relevant forms in which it is expressed.

Black stone also provided for the following definition of the interpretation of the Articles of Association:

  • He said the fairest and most rational way to understand and interpret a statute is to examine the intent of the legislation in terms of the most natural and likely signs.

It can also be said that the explanation of the objects and reasons, as well as the preamble at the beginning of each statute, contain a guideline on how the respective law is to be interpreted.

Importance of the interpretation of statutes

The interpretation of the Articles of Association is necessary for the following three reasons:

  1. The Complexity of Statutes: As mentioned earlier, laws are made by people who are experts in their respective fields. As a result, the provisions can be complex to a layperson. Hence an interpretation is deemed necessary.
  2. Legislative intent: sometimes the legislative intent may be lost due to the complexity of the statute. In order to understand the intent of the legislature, it is important to interpret the statutes.
  3. Diverse Nature of Language: The problem with the English language is that the same word can have different meanings in different contexts. For example, the word “PLAY” has different meanings in different contexts – “Did you see the track XYZ?” or “Are the children playing?” Both words are the same, but their meanings are different in both sentences.

Literal interpretation rule

In interpreting the statutes, the courts apply various principles to help them understand the principles. One of the principles is called the “literal rule of interpretation”.

The verbatim rule of interpretation has been called the primary rule of interpretation. As the name suggests, the literal rule of interpretation means that the judge literally interprets the statute. It can also be called a simple rule or a grammatical rule.

Bylaws are constructed using the ordinary meaning of the language given to the term and the judges are not required to interpret the terms in any other way.

In other words, the regulations must be read word for word and no other meaning can be given to the law.

To avoid confusion, the law generally contains “definitions”. If a specific meaning is given in the definition clause, that specific meaning is used and no other meaning is used.

In the literal rule of interpretation, the courts are required to observe the ordinary and natural meanings of words and to interpret the phrase or words as they are. The judges are not required to add words or change the meaning, and they must be mindful of the real intent of the legislature. It is the safest rule of interpretation.

The literal rule of interpretation is in a way against the use of intelligence in understanding speech. The judges are bound by the literal meaning of the words and cannot use their legal minds to deviate from them.

Sub-rules according to the literal rule of interpretation

  • There are a few sub-rules that are followed in the literal interpretation rule:
  1. Ejusdem Generis: It literally means “of the same kind”. It means following the general meaning of words or words of a similar nature.
  2. Casus Omissus: It literally means that cases are left out. It can also be construed as a point not provided for in the statutes. If a point is not provided for by law, it is subject to case law.
  3. Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius: It literally means that one has been mentioned while the other has been left out.

Advantages of the literal interpretation rule:

  1. The literal rule enables the layperson to understand the problem at hand.
  2. It enables the legislator’s intention to be understood simply and clearly.
  3. This rule respects parliamentary supremacy.

Critique of the literal interpretation rule:

A major criticism of this rule of interpretation is that the meaning of words can change from time to time and therefore literal interpretation leads to injustice. This can create misleading precedents.

When interpreting, the use of words such as “or”, “and”, “all” can still lead to confusion.

Another criticism of this rule is that it restricts and restricts the court so that it is unable to use its legal mind to deviate from the literal meaning of the terms.

Sometimes a court can find an absolutely absurd meaning that the legislature never intended.

Case law on the literal rule of interpretation

  1. Maqbool Hussain versus State of Bombay [i]: In this case, the Indian national Maqbool brought some gold with him after returning from an international trip. After the sea Customs ActNo Indian citizen was allowed to bring valuables such as gold, which is why his gold was confiscated. He was then prosecuted under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act of 1947. Maqbool claimed that since the gold had already been confiscated, this was a process in itself. He cannot be prosecuted under FERA, 1947, as this would be equivalent double danger. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the seizure of gold cannot be termed law enforcement and is therefore not a double threat under the strict and literal interpretation of Article 20 (2).
  2. Ram Avtar versus Assistant Sales Tax Officer[ii]:: According to the sales tax law of the Central Province and Berar, vegetables were tax-free. Ram Avtar was satisfied that the pan leaf, according to its dictionary meaning, also falls under the jurisdiction of vegetables and should therefore be tax-free. However, the court stated that reference should only be made to the meaning of the dictionary if the definition is not clear and there is no ambiguity, which is why the court rejected its plea.
  3. CBI Bank Securities & Fraud Cell v Ramesh Gelli & Ors [iii]:: In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a director or chairman of a private bank will come under the jurisdiction of an “official”.


From the discussion above, it can be seen that the literal rule of interpretation is the primary rule of interpretation by which courts interpret laws and regulations in the literal and ordinary senses without adding meaning or changing them. This rule is useful in cases where there is no ambiguity.

[i] Maqbool Hussain v Bombay State AIR 1953 SC 325

[ii] Ram Avtar versus Assistant Sales Tax Officer 1961 AIR 1325

[iii] Central Bureau of Investigation Bank Securities and Fraud Cell against Ramesh Gelli & Ors AIR 2016

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