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Golden Rule of interpretation: Written By: Tshewang Dema


“The essence of law lies in the spirit, not its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it” – Salmond

Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation to decide cases. Interpretation is necessary when the case involves subtle or ambiguous aspects of a statute. Generally, the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in some cases, there may be ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. The reason for ambiguity or vagueness of legislation is the fundamental nature of language. It is not always possible to precisely transform the intention of the legislature into written words.

A judge is then forced to resort to the documentation of legislative intent, which may also be unhelpful, and then finally to his or her own judgment of what outcome is ultimately fair and logical under the totality of the circumstances. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose. In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation to legislation enacted by the legislature or to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.[1]

Very often occasions will arise where the courts will be called upon to interpret the words, phrases and expressions used in the statute. There are numerous rules of statutory interpretation. Over time, various methods of statutory construction have fallen in and out of favour. Some of the better-known rules of construction methods are The Golden rule, The Literal rule, The Mischief rule and The Purposive approach.[2]

Whenever literal interpretation leads to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the court can depart from that meaning. It is such a rule which disposes of ambiguity’, inconsistency, unclarity, hardship, inconvenience, injustice, etc. arose from the language of Statute while interpreting it. Hence the golden rule is an exception and has an important place in the Interpretation of Statutes to the literal rule and will be used where the literal rule produces the result where Parliament’s intention would be circumvented rather than applied. Golden rule is a principle of statutory construction that the grammatical and ordinary sense of words may be modified so as to avoid an absurdity or inconsistency, but no farther.

Interpretation is of two kinds – grammatical and logical. Grammatical interpretation is arrived at by reference to the laws of speech to the words used in the statute; in other words, it regards only the verbal expression of the legislature. Logical interpretation gives effect to the intention of the legislature by taking into account other circumstances permissible according to the rules settled in this behalf. ‘Proper construction’ is not satisfied by taking the words as if they were self-contained phrases. So considered, the words do not yield the meaning of a statute.[3]

A statute is the will of the legislature and the fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all others are subordinate, and that a statute is to be expounded, according to the intent of them that made it. The object of interpretation is to find out the intention of the legislature.

The primary and foremost task of a court in interpreting a statute is to ascertain the intention of the legislature, actual or imputed. The words of the statute are to be construed so as to ascertain the mind of the legislature from the natural and grammatical meaning of the words which it has used. ‘The essence of the Law’, according to Salmond:[4]

“Lies in its spirit, nor in its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it. Nevertheless, in all ordinary cases, the courts must be content to accept the litera legis as the exclusive and conclusive evidence of the sententia legis. They must, in general, take it absolutely for granted that the legislature has said what it meant, and meant what it has said.”


The rule was defined by Lord Wensleydale in the Grey v Pearson case (1857)[5] as: “The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.”

Therefore, it is the modification of the literal rule of interpretation. The literal rule emphasises on the literal meaning of legal words or words used in the legal context which may often lead to ambiguity and absurdity. The golden rule tries to avoid anomalous and absurd consequences from arising from literal interpretation. In view of the same, the grammatical meaning of such words is usually modified.

The court is usually interested in delivering justice and in order to foresee the consequences of their decisions the golden rule is usually applied. This rule of interpretation aims at giving effect to the spirit of the law as the mere mechanical and grammatical meaning may not be sufficient.

According to Maxwell, “The golden rule is that words of Institute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning”.

According to Gray, “the process by which a judge (or indeed any person, lawyer or layman, who has occasion to search for the meaning of a statute) constructs from words of a statute book, a meaning which he either believes to be that of the legislature, or which he proposes to attribute to it, is called interpretation”.

The words of a statute must be prima facie according to Golden Rule to be given their ordinary meaning because when meaning of the word is plain, it is not the duty of the courts to busy themselves with supposed intention. But when grammatical interpretation leads to absurdity it is permissible to depart from and to interpret the provision of statues in such a manner so that absurdity is removed.[6]

The court when faced with more than one possible interpretation of an enactment is entitled to take into consideration the result of each interpretation in a bid to arrive at the true intention of the legislature. The golden rule provides no clear means to test the existence or extent of an absurdity. It seems to depend on the result of each individual case. Whilst the golden rule has the advantage of avoiding absurdities, it therefore has the disadvantage that no test exists to determine what is an absurdity.

In short, it is an interpretation which will give effect to the purpose of legislature, when the words itself becomes ambiguous, by modification of the language used. On the face of it, this rule solves all problems and is therefore known as “Golden Rule”. Further since the literal meaning is modified to some extent, this approach is also called the modifying method of interpretation. This rule, therefore, suggests that the consequences or effect of an interpretation deserve a lot more importance because there are clues too the true meaning of a legislation.


In the year 1857, for the first time, Lord Wensleydale propounded the golden rule of interpretation, in Grey Vs. Pearson.[7] Thereafter this rule has become famous by the name of Wensleydale’s Golden rule.

The Golden Rule was used in the R v Allen case (1872).[8] In this the defendant was charged with bigamy (S.57 of offences against the person act 1861) which, under statutes states: ‘whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence’.

It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience, but no further.


The golden rule can be applied in two ways:

Narrow Approach– This approach is applied when the word or phrases capable of more than one literal meaning. This allows the judge to apply the meaning which avoids the absurdity.

Broad Approach– This approach is applied when there is only one literal meaning. But applying that one literal meaning would cause an absurdity. Under this approach the court will modify the meaning to avoid the absurdity. The modification shall be keeping in mind the intention of the Parliament making the law in question.

The golden rule of statutory interpretation allows a shift from the ordinary sense of a word(s) if the overall content of the document demands it. It states that if the literal rule produces an absurdity, then the court should look for another meaning of the words to avoid that absurd result. The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.[9]


The significance of the golden rule in the interpretation is explained followed:

  • It becomes the duty of the Court to give effect to meaning of a law when it can lead to absurdity or defeat the ends of the enactment. The law requires the court sometimes to go to the extent of modification in the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words
  • The court shall not go in the path that defeats the provision of a law whose meaning is, prima facie, reasonably plain and lucid. However, this dose not mean that a law could be recast. It must be possible to find the meaning contended for out the words that are being used.
  • Unless the words of the law are absurd, ambiguous or without a proper meaning, it is preferable to construe them through their natural and ordinary meaning.


The golden rule can be put forward as a compromise between the literal rule and the mischief rule. It follows the path of literal interpretation by giving the status its ordinary meaning. At the same time, when the literal interpretation leads to an irrational result unlikely to the ends of the act, the court can deviate from the literal sense. Also, while using, abides by the public policy.[11]

An illustration of the use of the rule in its wider as well as its narrower sense is given below:

If there is a sign that say, “Do not use the elevators in case of fire”, the literal interpretation would mean never to use the elevator while there is a fire. However, this interpretation is absurd and what the sign truly tries to convey is to prevent using the elevators when a fire is nearby.

While using the wider approach, the golden rule avoids a result that would go against the public policy. For example, A son murders his mother and commits suicide. According to the law, the heirs of the mother’s property would be either the mother’s family or the son’s descendants. Since there is a question of profiting from the crime, the court is likely to favour the mother’s family in the interest of public policy.

 The Golden Rule enables the court to look at the literal meaning of an Act. This rule allows a Judge to depart from a statute’s normal meaning to avoid an absurd result. This rule of statutory interpretation may be applied when an application of the Literal Rule would lead to an absurdity. The Golden Rule gives the words of a statute their basic, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an illogical result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the golden rule allows a Judge to depart from this meaning.[12]

If the choice is between two interpretations, said Viscount Simon, L.C. in Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd.[13] “We should avoid a construction which would reduce the legislation to futility or the narrower one which would fail to achieve the manifest purpose of the legislation. We should rather accept the bolder construction based on the view that Parliament would legislate only for the purpose of bringing about an effective result. Thus, if the language is capable of more than one interpretation, one ought to discard the literal or natural meaning if it leads to an unreasonable result, and adopt that interpretation which leads to reasonably practical results.”

In this case[14] Section 154 of the Companies Act, 1929, was in question. This provision provided machinery for the transfer of the undertaking (an old company) to a new company. Under the section, “transfer” includes all property, rights, liabilities and duties of the former company vest with the latter. An issue therefore was whether a contract of service previously existing between an individual and transferor company automatically becomes a contract between the individual and the latter company.

Hence, an action was taken against him; however, no notice was given to him about the proposed amalgamation either by the transferor or the transferee company. It was contended that the contract of service could fall under the term “property”. Rejecting the contention, the House of Lords held that the benefits of a contract entered into between the former company and the employee cannot be transferred (by X company to Y company) without the consent of the employee.

It is said that the application of Golden Rule of Construction, and its limits, can be seen in the area devoted to construction with reference to the consequences, and construction to avoid inconvenience and injustice, and to prevent evasion He illustrated the application of the rule in various cases relating to criminal, civil, labour, revenue taxation and administration branches of law.


In India there are several good examples where the Supreme Court or High Courts have applied the Golden Construction of Statutes. Certain confusion one may face when it appears that even for literal rule, this rule is named. As golden rule initially starts with the search of literal meaning of the provision, and if there is unequivocal meaning, plain and natural and no repugnancy, uncertainty of absurdity appears, apply the meaning. But when there is possibility of more than one meaning, we have to go further to avoid the inconvenience by even modifying the language by addition, rejection or substitution of words so as to make meaning accurate expounding of intention of the legislature.[15]

In Uttar Pradesh Bhoodan Yagna Samiti v. Brij Kishore,[16] the Supreme Court held that the expression “landless person” used in section 14 of U.P. Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1953 which made provision for grant of land to landless persons, was limited to “landless laborers”. A landless labour is he who is engaged in agriculture but having no agricultural land. The Court further said that “any landless person” did not include a landless businessman residing in a city. The object of the Act was to implement the Bhoodan movement, which aimed at distribution of land to landless labourers who were verged in agriculture. A businessman, though landless cannot claim the benefit of the Act.

In Lee v. Knapp,[17] section 77(1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960 provided that “a driver causing accident shall stop after the accident”, the interpretation of the word “stop” was in question. In this case, the driver of the motor vehicle stopped for a moment after causing an accident and then ran away. Applying the golden rule the court held that the driver had not fulfilled the requirement of the section, as he had not stopped for a reasonable period so as to enable interested persons to make necessary inquires from him about the accident at the spot of accident.

In Ramji Missar v. State of Bihar[18] in construing section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, the Supreme Court laid down that the crucial date on which the age of the offender had to be determined is not the date of offence, but the date on which the sentence is pronounced by the trial court An accused who on the date of offence was below 21 years of age but on the date on which the judgment pronounced, if he was above 21 years, he is not entitled to the benefit of the statute. This conclusion reached having regard to the object of the Act. The object of the Statute is to prevent the turning of the youthful offenders into criminals by their association with the hardened criminals of mature age within the walls of the prison. An accused below 21 years is entitled to the benefit of the Act by sending him under the supervision of the probation officer instead of jail.

In state of Punjab v. Qaiser Jehan Begum,[19] the respondent made an application under Section 18 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 for reference to the civil court within six months from he her knowledge of the award regarding compensation whereas the section says that such reference would be made within six months from the date of the award. Holding that the application was within time, Supreme Court held that unless an award of compensation comes to the knowledge, either actually or constructively, how can a reference, if any, be made against the award. Therefore, justice and fair play required that the counting of the limitation period must begin from the date of knowledge of the award.

In Narendra Kiadivalapa v. Manikrao Patil,[20] section 23 of the Representation 33 of People Act, 1951, which permitted inclusion of the name in the electoral roll “till the last date for nomination” for an election in the concerned constituency, has been construed. Section 33(1) of the R.P. Act, 1951 specifies that the nomination papers shall be presented between the hours of 11’0 clock in the fore noon and 3’0 clock in the after noon. Reading these provisions together in the light of the object behind them, the Supreme Court construed the words “last date” in section 23 as “last hour of the last date” of nomination under section 33(1) of the Act.

In Tirath Singh v. Bachitter Singh[21]  the appellant argued that it was obligatory under Section 99 (1) (a) of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 for the tribunal to record names of all persons who had been guilty of corrupt practices including parties and non parties to the petition and that under the proviso, notice should be given to all persons named under Section 99(1)(a)(ii) He being a party to the petition was, therefore, entitled to a fresh notice. Supreme Court said that such an interpretation will lead to an absurdity and held that the proviso along with clause (b) thereto and the setting of the section pointed out that notice is contemplated only against non- parties to the petition.

In Annapurna Biscuit Manufacturing Co. v. Commissioner of Sales Tax,[22] U P., Sales 34 Tax was fixed at two per cent, of the turnover in the case of “cooked food” under section 3A of the U.P. Sales Tax Act, 1948. The appellant firm engaged in the business of biscuit manufacture and sale. Whether biscuits though intended for human consumption, can be construed as “cooked food” and liable to be taxed as per the notification issued under the said provision. Held that if an expression is capable of a wider meaning, the question whether the wider or narrower meaning should be accepted depends on the context of the statute. Here biscuit was not covered within the words ‘cooked food’. However, where the precise words used are plain and unambiguous the court is bound to construe them in their ordinary sense and not to limit plain words in an Act of Parliament by consideration of policy which has to decided not by court but by Parliament itself.[23]


Lord Moulten in Vacher & Sons v. London Society of Compositor,[25] had explained the reasons for adopting caution before application of the golden rule of construction in these words: “There is a danger that it may generate into a mere judicial criticism of the propriety of the Acts of legislature. We have to interpret statutes according to the language used therein, and though occasionally the respective consequences of two rival interpretations may guide us in our choice in between them, it can only be where, taking the Act as a whole and viewing it in connection with the existing state of law at the time of the passing of the Act, we can satisfy ourselves that the words cannot have been used in the sense the argument points.” It may sometimes happen that laws made for the benefit of public at large may come in conflict of some individual interest or take away his legal right and cause injustice to him. Like public policy, absurdity, uncertainty or repugnance, are very unruly horses.

In State Bank of India v. Shri N. Sundara Money,[26] the Supreme Court said that “it is the duty of all courts of justice, to take care for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law. Referring earlier cases the court observed that absurdity should be understood in the same sense as repugnance that is to say something which would be as absurd with reference to the other words of the statute as to amount to repugnance

In the case of Grundi v. Great Boulder Proprietary Cold Mines Ltd.,[27] Lord Greene M.R. said, “Although 38 absurdity or non-absurdity of one conclusion as capered with another may be and very often is, of assistance to the court in choosing between two possible meanings of ambiguous words. The Golden Rule of Construction is a doctrine, which must be applied with great care, remembering that judges may be fallible in this question of absurdity and in any event it must not be applied so as to result in twisting language into a meaning, which it cannot bear. It is a doctrine which must not be used to re-write the language in a way different from that in which it was originally framed.”


  • It allows the judge to choose the most sensible meaning where there is more than one meaning to the words in the Act or Statute.
  • It respects the words of the parliament except in limited situations, the golden rule
  • provides an escape route where there is a problem with using the literal meaning.
  • It can also provide reasonable decisions in cases where the literal rule would lead to repugnant situations (this goes for the wider meaning) – This is present in the Re Sigsworth case in the case example, because allowing the son to benefit from his crime would have been unjust.
  • A major advantage of the Golden Rule is that judge can technically change the law by changing the meaning of words in statues. They can, potentially infringing the separation of power between legal and legislature.
  • Another main advantages of the Golden Rule is that drafting errors in status can be corrected immediately. This is seen in the R V Allen (1872) case where the loopholes were closed, the decision was in line with parliament’s intentions, and it gave a more just outcome.


  • There is no real guidelines as to when it can be used
  • It is very limited in it is use, so it is only used on rare occasions
  • It’s not always possible to predict whether courts will use the golden rule, making it hard for lawyers and people who are advising their clients.
  • What seems to be absurd to one judge may not be to another so this means a case outcome is decided upon the judge, rather than the law
  • The Golden Rule won’t be help if there is no absurdity in the statute. For example, in the case of London and North Eastern Railway v. Berriman,[30] where the widow couldn’t get compensation because the wording of the statute didn’t allow for this circumstance.


The Golden Rule is probably the most well-known ethical code of all time. It was used by the Romans, the Chinese, the Greeks and adopted by every major religion imaginable. And at first glance it does seem like a good ethical code to hold by as a society. However, the golden rule is not only flawed and selfish, but it can also justify immoral acts. The main reason for the golden rule is flawed is because the moral standard and criteria is not based on others desires and preferences and it’s not even solely focused on what our preferences and desires are. The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated. And with that we are inevitably led to moral relativism, whatever your moral standard and desires are, is what is morally good for others.[31]

Now such moral thinking can be counter-productive and used to justify immoral acts. Consider a suicide bomber, a suicide bomber has no regard for his own life, he is literally killing himself. According to the golden rule treating someone should be based on how you want to be treated and since the suicide bomber is treating himself with death is it therefor justified that he could kill others?

The word “absurdity” is a vague concept and arises only in a few cases where it necessary for the court to apply the golden rule of interpretation. Golden rule suffers from the same problems which were faced by the Literal approach i.e. lack of wider contextual understanding of “meanings.” The majority of the cases contain tough scenarios where touch choices have to be made between many credible arguments, not scenarios in places where wordings of the legislation take you to obvious ambiguity.[32]

The ‘golden rule’ gives a court opportunities to create exceptions given public that are not based on the social subject matter under the legislation, not even on the consequences of the wordings made use by the law-making body, but entirely on the social and political perceptions of the judges who deal with such difficult cases.

They are not rules in any ordinary sense of the word since they all point to different solutions to the same problem. Nor is there any indication, either in the so-called rules or elsewhere, as to which to apply in any given situation. Each of them may be applied but need not be. Following are criticized that is made by Zander about the golden rule for being silent as to how the court should proceed if it does find an unacceptable absurdity[33]:

  1. It suffers from the same difficulties as the literal approach vis a lack of wider contextual understandings of “meanings.”
  2. The idea of “absurdity” covers only a very few cases. Most cases involve situations where difficult choices have to be made between several fairly plausible arguments, not situations where the words lead to obvious absurdities.
  3. The use of the “absurdity” safety valve can be very erratic as pointed out by Professor Willis in his famous article, “Statute Interpretation in a Nutshell”

The result is that in ultimate analysis the ‘golden rule’ does allow a court to make quite openly exceptions which are based not on the social policy behind the Act, not even on the total effect of the words used by the legislature, but purely on the social and political views of the men who happen to be sitting on the case.


Every nation has its own judicial system, the purpose of which to grant justice to all. The court aims to interpret the law in such a manner that every citizen is ensured justice to all. To ensure justice to all the concept of canons of interpretation was expounded. These are the rules which are evolved for determining the real intention of the legislature.

It is not necessary that the words used in a statute are always clear, explicit and unambiguous and thus, in such cases it is very essential for courts to determine a clear and explicit meaning of the words or phrases used by the legislature and at the same time remove all the doubts if any.

Hence, the Golden Rule of Interpretation could be concluded as—[34]

  • If the language of Statute is clear, unambiguous, and ordinary, then its meaning should be in accordance with that.
  • Statutes should be interpreted to materialize the intention of the legislature,
  • Words leading to more than one meaning should always be understood in the meaning which is balanced and discretional.
  • Should avoid or prevent inconsistent or inconvenient results.
  • Such interpretation should be avoided and the result is directly causing injustice.
  • Meaningless and Illogical Interpretation should not be accepted
  • If the language of Statute is not clear or leads to more than one meaning or not showing the intention of the legislature, then the language used in Statute could be reformed and other rules of interpretation can be used for the help. This is the Golden Rule of Interpretation.


  • Books
  • Bhattacharyya Prof. T. Interpretation of Statutes, Central Law Agency. 2014
  • Langan P St. J, Maxwell on the interpretation of statutes, Lexi Nexis Butterworths Wadhwa, Twelfth edition (2010).
  • Website

[1] Indian Institute of legal studies, “Golden Rule of Interpretation”, available at: (visited on September 22, 2021).

[2] Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn, 2017).

[3] Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn, 2017).

[4] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Golden Rule”, available at: (visited on September 23, 2021).

[5] 1857) 6 HL 61, p 106,26 LJ Ch 473,p 481

[6] Brief regarding rules of interpretation of statutes, available at: (visited on September 23, 2021).

[7] Ibid

[8] 2 ALL ER 641

[9] Becke v Smith,1836 150 E.R. 724 .

[10]  Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn, 2017).

[11] Radhika Saxena “ The Golden Rule of Interpretation” 22 IJN 17 (2020). 

[12] Sidharth Sabu “Golden Rule of Interpretation” 20 LLNN 12 (2020).  

[13] 1940) AC 1014.

[14] Viscount Simon, L.C. in Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd. 1940) AC 1014.

[15] Shraddha Agrawal “The Golden rule of Interpretation”, available at: (visited on September 23, 2021).

[16] 1988 RD 363 (SC)

[17] (1967) 2 QB 442.

[18] AIR 2003 P.& H. 135.

[19] AIR 1963 SC 1604

[20] AIR 1977 SC 2171

[21] AIR 1955 SC 850

[22] AIR 1981 SC 1656

[23] Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn, 2017).

[24] Shraddha Agrawal “The Golden rule of Interpretation”, available at: (visited on September 24, 2021).

[25] [1912] UKHL 3; (1913) AC 107

[26] [1976] 3 S.C.R. 160

[27] 1948 a ALL ER 21

[28] Golden Rule of Interpretation And Evolutionary Principals, available at: (visited on September 23, 2021).

[29] Ibid

[30] [1946] AC 278

[31] Langan P St. J, Maxwell, The Interpretation of Statutes, Lexi Nexis Butterworths Wadhwa, 12th edn., (2010).

[32] Rosedar S R A, Interpretation of Statutes, (Thomson Reuters, Haryana, 3rd edn., 2020).

[33] The Law Making Process (4th edition, 1994), 130.

[34] Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The interpretation of Statutes (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn, 2017).


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