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Golden rule of interpretation.

Golden rule of interpretation.

  • Introduction

The judiciary in India plays a huge role in ensuring the just and fair treatment of the people. Its decisions affect people in more ways than one. This is the reason that only people with the required level of intellect and experience are chosen to be judges in courts. We are aware of the regular judgments of the courts where they decide upon cases involving statutory applications. Often, the wording of a particular Section of a statute is challenged and it is the duty of the court to either expand, restrict or modify the meaning of the term, in order to ensure justice in the case at hand. This power of the judiciary is essential to its function of interpreting laws made by the Parliament. Sometimes the intention of the lawmaker is ambiguous due to the usage of vague terms, and thus, it becomes necessary for someone to correct this mistake. To aid the judges in deciding whether a term must be interpreted in a different way and what should be that interpretation, the rules of interpretation were created by some great minds. In this article, we shall look into what exactly the rules of interpretation are and specifically talk about one of the main rules, i.e. the golden rule of interpretation.  

What are the Rules of Interpretation

As per Salmond, “interpretation is the process by which the court seeks to ascertain the meaning of legislation through the medium of the authoritative form in which it is expressed.” The word ‘interpretation’ is derived from the Latin term interpretari which means to explain or understand. So when we say judges interpret the law, we mean judges try to ascertain the true meaning of the words used in a statute. 

It is important to note that judges do not get into the interpretation of statutes unless it is necessary. If the language of a provision is unambiguous and clear as to the intention of the maker, the courts do not try to modify it. duty to interpret arises only when the language of the provision is unclear, vague or ambiguous. To guide the judges in using this discretion appropriately, certain principles have been developed which we now refer to them as ‘rules of interpretation’.

 3 important rules of interpretations: There are three rules, literal rule,  golden rule, and mischief rule applied sequentially. 

The Literal rule

The literal rule is the first rule of interpretation. According to this rule, the judge has to read the statute as it is and consider the literal meaning of what is written. It means to extract the plain, ordinary, natural meaning of the text used in the Statute. This is why it is also called the ‘plain meaning rule’. The first step in interpreting anything is to read whatever is written as it is. The plain text of the statute can give an insight into the minds of its makers. In such cases, where the true meaning can be derived from the normal text of the statute, no modifications should be made. The end goal is to derive the one and only meaning of the text. Thus, this rule shall be applied when the language of a provision does not give rise to more than one meaning and is completely clear about what it deals with.

In the case of Duport Steel Ltd v. Sirs (1980), Lord Diplock observed that where the meaning of the words in a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for judges to invent ambiguities to give them an excuse for failing to apply the plain meaning to the case at hand because they presume it to be unjust.

The Mischief rule

This rule originated in Heydon’s case in 1584. It is also called Heydon’s rule as it was given by Lord Poke in that case. It is the rule of purposive construction as the purpose of the statute is most important while applying this rule. The focus of this rule is to cure the mischief, which means to prevent the misuse of provisions of a statute. As per this rule, the meaning of the statute should be interpreted in a way, where there is no room for mischief. Let’s understand this rule using an example.

In the year 1959, the Street Offences Act of the UK was enacted to prohibit prostitutes from soliciting on the roads/streets to the passing by the public. After the enactment, the prostitutes started soliciting from their balconies and windows. As per Section 1(1) of the Act, it was an offence for an adult to solicit in a public place for the purpose of prostitution. The prostitutes were charged under this Section as their actions defeated the intention of the legislation. When this was challenged before the Court, it was found that the meaning of this Section was being misinterpreted and was being taken advantage of by the prostitutes. It applied the mischief rule of interpretation and stated that the intention of the Act was to prevent prostitution. Thus, it expanded the meaning of the word ‘street’ and included the balconies and windows of homes

The Golden rule

The golden rule is a deviation from the literal rule. It is used to modify the meaning of the absurd term to give it a useful and appropriate meaning to suit the context. 

Meaning of Golden Rule of Interpretation/ lord Wensleydale rule. 

The golden rule of interpretation was propounded in the case of Grey v. Pearson by Lord Wensleydale in the year 1957. This is why it is also known as Wensleydale’s Golden Rule. This rule is the modification of the literal rule. The golden rule modifies the language of the words in a statute to successfully interpret the actual meaning of the legislation. It takes into account the context in which the words are used so that justice can be done to the intention of the legislation. It is to be noted that the rule can be used only when the language of the statute is ambiguous or grammatically incorrect. Thus the judges need to be extremely careful with their interpretation and only exercise this power when it is absolutely necessary.  

The golden rule can be applied in a narrow or a broad sense:

  • Narrow approach – This approach is taken when the words in the statute are capable of multiple interpretations. Through this approach, the judge is able to apply the meaning which is clear and properly portrays the true intention of the statute. This approach was used in the R v. Allen, (1872) case.
  • Broad approach – This approach is taken when there exists only one possible interpretation of a word. In some cases, the meaning might cause absurdity. In order to avoid this problem, the judges can use this approach to modify the meaning of the word but this modification should be limited and shouldn’t deviate from the actual intention of the legislation. In Re. Sigsworth: Bedford v. Bedford (1954), this approach was used.

The golden rule of interpretation is the second step after the literal rule. When the literal rule fails due to the existence of multiple meanings of a word in the statute,  or absurd meaning making Statitle Provision unworkable, the golden rule is to be applied. 

Advantages of the Golden Rule: it allows the judge to modify the meaning of words to remove absurdity and apply the modified term effectively in the case at hand. When the literal rule of interpretation fails to bring clarity, the golden rule steps in to help the court. It guides the judges in applying appropriate principles while interpreting the meaning of the statute. It takes away the requirement of amending the legislation to make minute changes as the judges can do that for the Parliament. For example, in the R v. Allen case discussed above, the Court stepped in and closed the loopholes by applying the golden rule. The interpretation was in line with the original intention of the Parliament. Thus, no amendments were required.

Disadvantages of the Golden Rule

  • The golden rule has restricted or limited use only when the literal rule leads to ambiguities in interpretation. 
  • It results in unpredictable and lacking guidelines.
  • judges can twist the meaning of the words and change the law. This would cause a disbalance in the separation of powers.

Methods of application of the Golden Rule

Some scholars have tried to lay down ways by which the meaning of the statute is to be ascertained. Earl T. Crawford, in his book “The Construction of Statutes”, has written that the first source of interpretation should be sought from the words of the statute. After that, the meaning ascertained should be examined in the context and subject matter of the enactment. If the legislative intent is still unclear, the various external sources of assistance can be consulted. In this case, the external source of assistance shall be the rules of interpretation. 

Austin has also contributed to the vast literature on rules of interpretation. He has divided the interpretative process into three sub-processes:

  • Finding the rule.
  • Finding the intention of the legislature.
  • Extending or restricting the statute to cover cases.

Similarly, De Sloovere recommended the following steps:

  • Finding the right statutory provisions.
  • Interpreting the statute in its technical sense.
  • Applying the meaning to the case at hand.

In both the recommendations, the first step is to find the appropriate rule/provision and apply it to the case at hand. If the literal meaning of the statute is appropriate, it shall be applied. Whenever literal meaning gives absurd results, the golden rule of interpretation shall come into play. The court can extend or restrict the statute using this rule to cover the case at hand and apply the modified meaning to come to a better judgment.

Views of eminent jurists on the Golden Rule of Interpretation

Through the years, eminent jurists have shared their thoughts about the golden rule of interpretation either through judgments or books. 

Justice Holmes stated that a word is not crystal, transparent, or unchanged. It is the product of thought and has the ability to vary greatly in colour and content based on the surrounding circumstances and the time in which it is used. Wherever the meaning of the words is uncertain, there may be a requirement for the application of the golden rule. The court’s main purpose is to supply justice and to do that, proper interpretation has to be made. The literal rule should be used first but if it results in absurdity, the ordinary meaning of the word may be modified to avoid that absurdity, but no further. 

Lord Moulton in the case of Vacher & Sons v. London Society of Compositor, (1912) emphasized the need for caution before applying the golden rule of interpretation. He stated that there exists a danger that the rule may lead to mere judicial criticism of the correctness of the Acts of the legislature. We have to interpret the statutes based on the language used in them. Although the result of two conflicting interpretations may guide us in making a choice between them, we can be sure that the words used cannot be attributed to the conflicting interpretation by taking the Act as a whole and viewing it in the context of the existing State law at that time.

The Supreme Court in the case of State Bank of India v. Shri N. Sundara Money, (1976) stated that the rights of the public are paramount and are to be considered superior in comparison to individual rights. If the words of the statute are absurd in the context of the case, they should be considered repugnant in order to apply the golden rule of interpretation.

Important case laws 

State of Punjab v. Qaiser Jehan Begum (1963)

Facts of the case

  • The respondents were the owners of 55 bighas and 7 biswas of land in two villages.
  • Their lands along with nearby lands were acquired by the appellant for his use.
  • The respondents were not informed about the acquisition and were not present at the time of the award. 
  • The Collector awarded compensation at the rate of Rs. 96 per acre but the respondents a year later contended the valuation of their lands. The senior subordinate judge rejected their application as it was already 6 months since the sale and was thus beyond the period of limitation as per Section 18 of the Land Acquisition Act, of 1894.

Issue of the case 

  • Whether the limitation period starts from the day of sale or from the day of getting the knowledge of the award.


  • The Supreme Court held that the parties must first come to know the award in order to make an application for reference under Section 18. The parties were not informed of the award by notice.
  • Since the parties got to know of the award on a later date, the limitation period for Section 18 would start from this date and not the date on which the compensation was awarded.
  • In this case, the Court applied the golden rule to modify the meaning of the provision to include the start of the limitation period from the date of receiving the notice of award.

Ramji Missar v. State of Bihar (1962)

Facts of the case 

  • The appellant and his younger brother Basist assaulted one person who suffered grievous injuries.
  • The appellant and his brother were charged with Section 307 & Section 326, and Section 324 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 respectively. 
  • It was also found that the younger brother, 19, had no intention to cause hurt, and was thus only charged with Section 324.
  • The appellant contended that the younger brother’s age was under 21 at the date of the offence and thus Section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958 should be applied. 

Issue of the case

  • Whether the age of the accused is to be determined on the date of the offence or the date of the guilty verdict.


  • The Supreme Court in this case decided that the age of the younger brother was below 21 years of age and thus, Section 6 was applicable to him.
  • The Court applied the golden rule to allow the accused to claim the benefit under Section 6 of the Act by stating that the determination of age for this Section should be done on the date of the guilty verdict and not the date of offence.

Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd. (1940)

Facts of the case

  • Section 154 of the Companies Act, 1929 provided the machinery for the transfer of an old company to a new company. ‘Transfer’ includes transferring all property, rights, liabilities, and duties of the former company to the new company.
  • There existed a contract of service between the appellant, Tom Nokes, and the old company.
  • After the acquisition of the old company by the respondent, the transfer of all property, rights, liabilities and duties was done. The appellant continued to work in the old company without having knowledge of the acquisition. 
  • When the appellant absented himself from work, he was held liable under Section 4 of the Employers and Workmen Act, 1875
  • The respondent claimed that the transfer included the contract of service under the transfer of ‘property’. 

Issue of the case

  • Whether the transfer of property includes the contract of service that previously existed between the individual and the transferee company.


  • The House of Lords held that the benefits of the contract entered into by the employee and the former company cannot be transferred without informing and obtaining the consent of the employee.
  • The notice of the amalgamation by the transferor or transferee company to the appellant was essential. 
  • It was also stated that while using the golden rule, the words must be given their ordinary meaning. If the legislature desired that workers could be transferred to the new company without their consent then it would have specifically mentioned it in the statute. But nothing of that sort could be found in the present case. Thus, the golden rule was used in this case to modify the meaning of the term ‘property’ by restricting it. Viscount Simon, L.C. presented his reasoning by stating that an interpretation should be avoided if it reduces the legislation to futility which would fail to achieve the purpose of the legislation. 

If the golden rule wouldn’t have been applied in this case, it would have led to injustice as it would take away the consent of the workers. This would negatively affect the workers who would be subject to frivolous penalties just like in this case.

State of Madhya Pradesh v. Azad Bharat Financial Company (1967)

Facts of the case

  • A transport vehicle belonging to the defendant was carrying a parcel of apples.
  • While being checked by the authorities, it was found that the parcel contained opium. An invoice was shown to the authorities, which contained crates of apples as the only item.
  • Eventually, the vehicle was impounded and the items carried by it were confiscated.
  • Section 11 of the Opium Act, 1878 provided that all the vehicles transporting contraband articles shall be impounded and articles confiscated. 
  • The transport company contended that it had no knowledge of the opium present in their transport vehicle. 

Issue of the case

  • Whether the magistrate was bound by the words of Section 11 of the Opium Act, 1878 to confiscate the vehicle. 


  • The High Court held that it was unjust to confiscate the truck of a person if he had no knowledge of the opium being carried on it.
  • Since it is a penal statute, it should be construed in a way that no person who has not committed any offence, shall not be penalised.
  • The word ‘shall’ in “shall be confiscated” should be interpreted as ‘may’ in the context of such cases. 

Thus, the obligation under Section 11 of the Act was removed using the golden rule of interpretation. Had the literal rule been followed in this case, it would’ve led to gross injustice as an innocent person would’ve been penalised. 

Lee v. Knapp (1967)

Facts of the case

  • The defendant was driving around the block in which his company’s office stood. The purpose was to demonstrate to the van driver that the new vehicle was easy to drive.
  • During this demonstration, the van got into an accident with a parked vehicle.
  • As per Section 77(1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, the driver of the vehicle shall stop and give his information and his car’s identification marks in case of an accident where damage has been done to another vehicle. 
  • The defendant stopped but did not provide the details personally as was required by the Section.

Issue of the case

  • Whether the meaning of the word ‘stop’ included stopping for a reasonable period of time before leaving the place of the accident.

Judgment of the Court

  • The court held that the driver did not stop for a reasonable period of time and made an attempt to look for the other car’s owner. 
  • Also, the defendant not giving the details personally violated Section 77(1) of the Act.
  • Here, the golden rule was applied to expand the meaning of ‘stop’ to include ‘search the victim’. Due to these reasons, the defendant was held liable under Section 77(1) of the Act.

Tirath singh Vs. Bachitar Singh (1955) (SC) the appellant was a party to the Petition in a dispute of corrupt Practice in the election, he was of the view that under section 99(1) (ii) of the Representations of Peoples Act 1957, it is obligatory for the tribunal to record the name of all persons who had been guilty of corrupt practice including parties or non-parties to the petition and under Proviso notice to be given to all persons. Since he was party to the dispute of corrupt practice, he is entitled to receive a notice but the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that such interpretation Leads to absurdity and therefore notice only to non-parties to dispute. 

M/S Sainik Motors  Jodhpur Vs. State of Rajasthan  (SC) (1961):  Levy of Tax on Passengers and goods carried by road in a motor vehicle under The Rajasthan Passengers and Goods  Taxation Act, 1959 under Entry 56 of the State List- II in Sch. VII of the Constitution. The amount of the tax was measured by the fares and freight. Under entry no 89 of the union list, where power is conferred  to the union to tax “fares and freights.”Writ to declare Such levy of Rajasthan unconstitutional and in violation of A-301 and 304 of the constitution and also against Art. 19 as involving an unreasonable restriction upon the business of the petitioners and also to Art. 14 as discriminating between this mode of transport and the Railways. It is submitted that a tax on fares and freight being a different tax, cannot be levied under the Entry, and thus, the tax is without authority of law.

Held: The Supreme Court held that tax was not upon the income of the operator but upon the passengers and goods only measurement was linked with fare and freight and only because of that it did not cease to be a tax on passengers and goods.

State of Uttar Pradesh Vs. Synthetics and Chemicals Limited (1980) (SC)

The Uttar Pradesh Excise Manual was passed by the State legislations under the UP. Excise (Amendment) Act 1972 where under levy on denatured Spirit was challenged on the ground that the State has no such Power and power belongs to Union parliament only. 

Held: The Supreme Court held that entry No.  8 of State List -II of Schedule VII of COI empowered the State to tax on liquor and liquor not only cover alcoholic liquor generally used for beverage purposes but also include liquids containing alcohol. Therefore the State has the exclusive right to make laws relating to the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquor which includes liquor Containing alcohol. entry 8 of the state list covers “ Intoxicating liquors, that is to say, the production, manufacture, possession, transport, purchase and sale of intoxicating liquors.”

Note:  entry no 8 of state List Cover . Intoxicating liquors, that is to say, the production, manufacture, possession, transport, purchase and sale of intoxicating liquors

Fitzpatrick v. Sterling Housing Association Limited (1999)

Facts of the case

  • The claimant had a long-standing and stable homosexual relationship with the deceased, who was the original tenant of the flat.
  • After the death of the tenant, the claimant sought a statutory tenancy as the spouse of the deceased.

Issue of the case

  • Whether a homosexual partner is eligible to get a statutory tenancy on the same grounds as a spouse in a heterosexual marriage? 


  • The Court held that the claim could not be made as a spouse of the deceased as homosexual partners did not come under the meaning of the word. The word spouse included ‘husband or wife’ of the deceased. 
  • If the Parliament wanted to include same-sex partners, then it would have expressly stated it.
  • However the Court stated that the meaning of the word ‘family’ could be extended to include same-sex partners. Thus the appeal was allowed.

In this case, the golden rule was applied to ensure justice for homosexuals when it came to rights related to family law. The Court ensured that it didn’t cross the line and infringe upon the area of the legislature by using the literal rule.  

Criticism of the Golden Rule of Interpretation 

On the face of it, the golden rule of interpretation seems like a good alternative to the literal rule. But as per many, it has its shortcomings and sometimes these shortcomings might lead to tragic results.

The first point of criticism comes from the definition of the term ‘absurdity’. It is a vague concept. Also, what is absurd depends on the person interpreting it. This leads to a lack of uniformity while applying the already limited golden rule. Every judge is different and is bound to interpret things differently. The purpose of this rule is to bring uniformity by stating that the interpretation of the provisions of a statute should not deviate from the intention of the legislation. This rule is to be applied when the literal interpretation of the text produces ambiguous or absurd results. This is where the problem lies. The absurdity clause to some extent eliminates the uniformity provided by the rule. 

Secondly, the literal, golden, and mischief rules are called rules but are they really rules in the true sense of the word? Certainly not. It is totally based on the discretion of the judges. Although they’re called rules, none of them carries any authority independently. The judges can choose not to follow the ‘rules’ when the need clearly exists. Also, they’re all different solutions to the same problem. Thus, there is no hard and fast rule as to which one to apply in the case at hand.

Thirdly, due to the culmination of the above-mentioned reasons, the golden rule acts as an excuse for the judge to deviate from the guidelines. It allows the judge to make exceptions that do not align well with the policy behind the Act but are based on the social and political views of the judge. So the bias of the judge can find a way to enter the scene through this power of interpretation. For example, let’s take the prostitution case that we discussed above. There is legislation banning the use of cigarettes in public similar to the prostitution case. A case arises before the Court and it has to now decide if the accused is guilty of violating a particular Section of the statute. Now, if the judge personally believes that smoking is not all that bad, he could restrict the meaning of ‘streets’ in this case. Thus, the application of the golden rule of interpretation is dependent on the wisdom and integrity of the judges.


The golden rule of interpretation is one of the better ways to strike a balance between statutory intent and evolving societal needs. It was best described in the case of Fitzpatrick v. Sterling Housing Association Limited, (1999), that there are areas of law where a clear demarcation lies between the judiciary and the legislature. When it comes to interpretation, the intention of the legislature should always be kept in mind. If a particular provision clearly mentions the parties concerned with it, the judiciary for the sake of socio-legal development expands its meaning unless the intention of the legislature says so. The judiciary cannot cross that line and perform the functions of the legislature.

Due to the possibility of errors in interpretation, the golden rule is not a perfect tool. It cannot always be used to eliminate absurdities in the plain meaning of the statute. Due to this, several jurists have come up with their own procedure of application of the rule to make it more efficient. The rule has been used and modified by judges in various cases for decades and it is still in use to this date as it has stood the test of time.  

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is the golden rule better than the literal rule of interpretation?

Both the literal and the golden rules have specific applications and thus cannot be compared. The literal rule is used in most cases to extract the true meaning of the statute through the plain reading of the language. The golden rule, on the other hand, is used to modify the meaning of the provision if the literal meaning leads to absurdity in the case at hand.

Are the rules of interpretation followed compulsorily by the judges?

The rules of interpretation are not mandatory but discretionary. The judges can choose to apply whichever rule they feel is appropriate for the case at hand. They can also choose not to apply these rules at all. These rules exist for the sole purpose of guiding the courts to eliminate absurdity in statutes and arrive at a proper decision.

Why golden rule of interpretation and construction are important for interpretation?

The golden rule of interpretation and construction is important because it enables the judge to modify the meaning of terms that have an absurd or anomalous interpretation. Judges should ensure that appropriate meaning is applied to the case at hand and that any kind of absurdity is removed.

Why is the golden rule of interpretation criticized?

The golden rule is sometimes criticized because it is unpredictable. It depends on the interpretation of the judge, which may differ from the views of other judges. The modified meaning might be appropriate for the present case but this may not be true for other cases.

What does uncertainty or absurdity mean in the context of the interpretation of statutes?

When the meaning of a term in the statute gives an unclear or vague outcome in the context of the case, then it would be called uncertain. Absurdity in the context of interpretation means that the meaning of the term leads to a completely different or opposite interpretation than what the statute intends to do.

Qualification: LLM(P) LLB, FCA, CS, GSTCC, B.Sc. (H),
Location: NCR DELHI

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