Five Basic Rules of Interpretation of Statues

Over time, various methods of statutory interpretation and construction have fallen in and out of favor. Some of the important rules of statuary interpretation are:

1. Primary Rules

  1. Literal Rule: It means that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statue of unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise. In other words, the law must be read, word, and it should not divert from its true meaning.
  2. Mischief Rule: This rule attempts to determine the legislator’s intention. Originating from a 16th-century case in the United Kingdom, its main aim is to determine the ‘’mischief and defect’’ that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy.
  3. Golden Rule: It is a comprise between the plain meaning rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning. If the word only has one meaning, and applying this meaning would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.
  4. Rule of Harmonious Construction: when there is two provision in a statue, which are in conflict with each other, they should be interpreted such that effect can be given to both and the construction which renders either of them inoperative and useless should not be adopted except in the last resort.

2. Secondary Rules aka Rules of Language

  1. Noscitur a Sociis:  When a word is ambiguous, its meaning may be determined by reference to the rest of the statute.
  2. Ejusdem Generis:  when a list of two or more specific descriptions are followed by more general descriptions, the otherwise wide meaning of the general descriptors must be restricted to the same class, if any, of the specific words that precede them, e.g., vehicles in ‘’cars, motorbikes, motor powered vehicles’’ would be interpreted in a limited sense and therefore cannot be interpreted as including air planers.
  3. Reddendo Singula Singulis:  When a list of words has a modifying phrase at the end, the phrase refers only to the last word, e.g., firemen, policemen, and doctors in a hospital. Here ‘’in a hospital’’ only applies to doctors and not to firemen or policemen.