Literal rules in Law

Literal rules in Law

The first and the most elementary rule of interpretation is that the words and phrases of technical legislation are used in their technical meaning if they have acquired one, otherwise in their ordinary meaning.  The second is that the phrases and sentences are to be construed according to the rules of grammar.  According to literal rule, statute must be construed in the ordinary and natural meaning of the words and sentences.


According to Salmond, interpretation is either Grammatical or Logical.  Glanwille Williams prefers to call as literal and free interpretation.  According to literal rule, a judge must go by the words of the law or the litera legis for the purpose of ascertaining the spirit of the law or sententia legis.  The general rule is that the judge must take it for granted that the legislature has said what it meant and meant what it said.  A judge should not, generally, go beyond the words of law and try to discover its spirit from extraneous sources.


The traditional English view is that the duty of the judges is to discover and to act upon the true intention of the legislature.  In all ordinary cases, the courts must be content to accept the litera legis as the exclusive and conclusive evidence of the sententia legis.  Ita scriptum est (as the words are) is the first principle of interpretation.  Thus the judges are not at liberty to add or to take from or modify the letter of the law simply because they believe that the spirit of the law is not adequately expressed by the litera legis or that the spirit could have been better expressed in a more appropriate language.


In order to determine the literal meaning of a statute the courts make use of various rules of interpretation.  They are rough principles or guides rather than strict rules.  To ascertain the meaning of a word in a statute the court may look at dictionaries or scientific or other technical works in which they are used. The courts may also interpret statutory words in the light of the definitions provided in the interpretation clause of the statute itself.


The meaning of a word is also affected by its context.  Hence the legal maxim ‘noscitur a sociis’ which means that the meaning of a word is to be judged by the company it keeps.  It is another rule of language.  The context may consist of the surrounding sections, the whole Act, or indeed the whole area of legislation.  Context may even give the word a meaning which is not to be found in the dictionary.  For example, several instances are to be found in the reports in which the technical term ‘void’ as used in a statute has been considered as if it were voidable, since this was the meaning required to give effect to the evident requirement of the legislature.  On the other hand, the courts are quite ready to extend the statutory words to cover new inventions.  Thus the Engraving Copyright Act was held to cover not only engravings but photography. The Telegraph Act was held to extend to the telephone.


In dealing with the matters relating to the general public, statutes are presumed to use words in their popular, rather than their narrow, legal or technical sense.  Loquitor ut vulgus (according to the common understanding and acceptation of the terms) is another maxim.  If an Act is directed to dealing with matters affecting everybody generally, the words used have the meaning attached to them in the common and ordinary use of the language.  Thus in Unwin v. Hanson (1891) the question was whether the words  ‘pruned’ or ‘lopped’ included cutting of the top of trees.  The power given under Section 65 of the Highways Act 1835, to lop trees growing near a highway was construed in the popular sense as confined to cutting of lateral branches, and not exceeding to topping.  Lord Esher M.R. of the Court of Appeal held that the word ‘lop’ was to be understood in its ordinary meaning of cutting of branches.  However, Lord Esher pointed out that certain words may be attributed some special or technical meaning if the context justifies it.  For instance ‘waist’ or ‘skin’ are used with reference to ships and hence the maxim ‘noscitur a sociis’ is applicable to such cases.


In Lee v. Knapp (1967), Section 77(1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960 requires that the driver of a motor vehicle shall stop after an accident. Winn L.J. said that he would not wish to give the impression that a momentary pause after an accident would exempt the driver of a car from the necessity of stopping to give particulars. The phrase ‘the driver of the motor vehicle shall stop’ is properly to be construed as meaning the driver of the motor vehicle shall stop it and remain where he has stopped it for such a period of time as in the prevailing circumstances, having regard in particular to the character of the road or place in which the accident happened, will provide a sufficient period to enable persons who have a right so to do, and reasonable ground for so doing, to require of him direct and personally the information which may be required under the Section.


Another legal maxim which in reality merely enshrines a rule of language is the maxim ‘expressio unius est exclusio alterius’ which means express  mention of one thing excludes the other alternative.  Suppose, for example, that a statute refers both to land and buildings, and then makes a provision for land without mentioning buildings.  Here the provision may be construed not to cover buildings, even though the word ‘land’ would normally be taken to include buildings.  However, the maxim is not compelling rule of law, but only a principle that may be used by the court in expounding the probable intent of the legislature.


Another example of a rule of language in a legal maxim is the ejusdem generis rule which serves to restrict the meaning of general words to things or matters of the same kind as the preceding particular words.  For example, the Sunday Observance Act, 1677 provided that “no tradesman, artificier; workman, labourer or other person whatsoever” should do certain things.  The general phrase “other person whatsoever” was held to refer only to persons within the class indicated by the previous particular words and not therefore to include such persons as farmers or barbers.  This, however, is only a common-sense rule of language.  For example, if a man tells his wife to go out and buy butter, milk, eggs and anything else she needs, he will not normally be understood to include in the term “anything else she needs” a new hat or an item of furniture.


The casus omissus rule provides that omissions in a statute cannot, as a general rule,  be supplied by construction.  It means where a statute contains gaps or omissions, such deficiencies cannot, as a rule, be corrected by  the judges.  This rule is well illustrated by the case of Parkinson v. Plumpton (1954).  The Catering Wages Act, 1943 prescribed minimum wages payable to workers in catering establishments.  The Schedule of the Act provided for minimum wages payable to two categories of workers in catering establishments. The first category of workers are those who are given full boarding and lodging by the employer.  The second category of workers are those who are not given either full boarding or lodging by the employer. The plaintiff in this case was a worker in a catering establishment.  She was provided with full boarding but not with lodging.  The plaintiff did not fall under either of the two categories.   She claimed that she was paid less than the minimum wages payable under the Act.  The court held that it was a case of casus omissus and she was not entitled to minimum wages under the Act.


If the enacted law by the legislature could be applied mechanically by the courts in specific cases, there would have been no need for trained judges and lawyers.  But, as the meaning of the words change from time to time and depend also upon the persons concerned, the interpretation of statutes passed by the legislatures becomes important.  This has increased the judicial power tremendously.  To discipline this power of wide discretion, to avoid arbitrariness in judicial process and to provide precedents, the courts themselves have evolved in the course of judicial process principles, theories, rules and doctrines for the interpretation of statutes so as to provide guidelines in that process.