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Rule of Literal Interpretation

person DateMay 31, 2017

Rule of Literal Interpretation

It is the first rule for the interpretation. The enactments are given their ordinary meaning and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous, than effect should be given to a provision of statute whatever may be consequences. In construing Statutes the cardinal rule is to construe its provisions Literally and grammatically giving the words their ordinary and natural meaning. This rule is also known as the Plain meaning rule. The first and foremost step in the course of interpretation is to examine the language and the literal meaning of the statute. The words in an enactment have their own natural effect and the construction of an act depends on its wording. There should be no additions or substitution of words in the construction of statutes and in its interpretation. The primary rule is to interpret words as they are. It should be taken into note that the rule can be applied only when the meanings of the words are clear i.e. words should be simple so that the language is plain and only one meaning can be derived out of the statute.

In Municipal board v. State transport authority, Rajasthan, the location of a bus stand was changed by the Regional Transport Authority. An application could be moved within 30 days of receipt of order of regional transport authority according to section 64 A of the Motor vehicles Act, 1939. The application was moved after 30 days on the contention that statute must be read as “30 days from the knowledge of the order”. The Supreme Court held that literal interpretation must be made and hence rejected the application as invalid.


To avoid ambiguity, legislatures often include ‘definitions’ sections within a statute, which explicitly define the most important terms used in that statute. But some statutes omit a definitions section entirely, or (more commonly) fail to define a particular term. The plain meaning rule attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.

According to the plain meaning rule, absent a contrary definition within the statute, words must be given their plain, ordinary and literal meaning. If the words are clear, they must be applied, even though the intention of the legislator may have been different or the result is harsh or undesirable. The literal rule is what the law says instead of what the law means.

A literal construction would not be denied only because the consequences to comply with the same may lead to a penalty. The courts should not be over zealous in searching for ambiguities or obscurities in words which are plain. (Tata Consultancy Services V. State of A.P. (2005) 1 SCC 308)14

Understanding the literal rule

The literal rule may be understood subject to the following conditions –

  1. Statute may itself provide a special meaning for a term, which is usually to be found in the interpretation section.
  2. Technical words are given ordinary technical meaning if the statute has not specified any other.

iii. Words will not be inserted by implication.

  1. Words undergo shifts in meaning in course of time.
  2. It should always be remembered that words acquire significance from their context.

When it is said that words are to be understood first in their natural ordinary and popular sense, it is meant that words must be ascribed that natural, ordinary or popular meaning which they have in relation to the subject matter with reference to which and the context in which they have been used in the Statute. In the statement of the rule, the epithets ‘natural, “ordinary”, “literal”, “grammatical” and “popular” are employed almost interchangeably to convey the same idea.

For determination of the meaning of any word or phrase in a statute, the first question is what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute but when that natural or ordinary meaning indicates such result which cannot be opposed to have been the intention of the legislature, then to look for other meaning of the word or phrase which may then convey the true intention of the legislature. In the case of ‘Suthendran V. Immigration Appeal Tribunal, the question related to Section 14(1) of the Immigration Act, 1971, which provides that ‘a person who has a limited leave under this Act to enter or remain in the United Kingdom may appeal to an adjudication against any variation of the leave or against any refusal to vary it. The word ‘a person who has a limited leave’ were construed as person should not be included “who has had” such limited leave and it was held that the section applied only to a person who at the time of lodging of his complaint was lawfully in the United Kingdom, in whose case, leave had not expired at the time of lodgment of an appeal.

Another important point regarding the rule of literal construction is that exact meaning is preferred to loose meaning in an Act of Parliament. In the case of Pritipal Singh V. Union of India (AIR 1982 SC 1413, P. 1419(1982)), it was held that there is a presumption that the words are used in an Act of Parliament correctly and exactly and not loosely and inexactly.

Criticism of this rule

Opponents of the plain meaning rule claim that the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a fixed meaning. In fact, words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of a statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plain meaning survives.

This is the oldest of the rules of construction and is still used today, primarily because judges may not legislate. As there is always the danger that a particular interpretation may be the equivalent of making law, some judges prefer to adhere to the law’s literal wording.

Exceptions to the rule of literal interpretation

Generally a statute must be interpreted in its grammatical sense but under the following circumstances it is not possible:-

Logical defects

  1. A) ambiguity
  2. B) inconsistency
  3. C) incompleteness or lacunae
  4. D) unreasonableness


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