This article has been written by Shreya Kaul, IV Year student at Symbiosis Law School Pune
Introduction: Appreciating the Need of Statutory Interpretation
Statutory interpretation is understood to be a question of law rather than a question of fact, with its primary purpose being the ascertainment of the very intent of the legislature at the time of passing of the law. When multiple perspectives of a plethora of legislators are blended together, complexities and incoherence is a highly possible outcome; statutory interpretation provides assistance to combat such complexities. Furthermore, the judiciary steps in to interpret statutes according to the prevailing circumstance so as to attribute them contemporaneous value. Denning L.J.’s observation in the Seaford case[i] emphasizes upon the relevance of statutory interpretation by the judge. The focus of this article lies upon the literal rule of interpretation in tandem with the chosen case.
Case: Shilpa Mittal v. State of NCT of Delhi and Ors.(Shilpa Mittal case)
Rule of Interpretation Applied in the Case: Literal Rule
To put it facilely, the literal interpretation of a statute is discovering the authentic sense of the statute by making it an expositor of its own.[ii] This rule is also understood as the plain-meaning rule since it advocates the ordinary, plain, general and popular meaning interpretations of the statute’s language, unless the statute explicitly defines a few of its terms otherwise; the law is to be read word by word, resonating of textualism and, to a certain degree, originalism. As laid down in the Sussex Peerage case, this rule’s interpretation stated that when the wordings of the statutes are unambiguous in themselves, then the wordings alone can best affirm the legislature’s intention, thus binding the Courts to give effect to the textual meaning irrespective of the consequences[iii]; no words shall be added, obliterated or altered unless absolutely necessary for the prevention of rendering a provision utterly absurd, unreasonable or unworkable[iv]. Salmond observed that it’s the legislature’s responsibility to amend the statute in case the legislative intent is unclear, and the judges need not initiate the required amendment. However, this rule isn’t devoid of flaws- ambiguity in understanding the true meaning of a term or expression,[v] injustice to a party owing to a non-contextual interpretation, restrictions upon the judicial innovation and absurd and incomplete interpretations are the few demerits of this rule.
For appreciating the literal rule of interpretation through a judicial stamp, the recent Shilpa Mittal case will be elucidated upon in reference to the interpretational issue, the application of the literal rule by the court concluding with contextual suggestions by the author.
Facts and Conundrums of Interpretation
- Juvenile ‘A’ was alleged to have caused the death of the deceased by way of a motor vehicle accident, punishable under section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) The sister of the victim (deceased) was the Appellant in the instant case. Offenders under section 304 of the IPC can receive a maximum punishment of life imprisonment or up to 10 years imprisonment and fine and imprisonment up to 10 years or a fine, or both. The noteworthy consideration is that no minimum sentence has been stipulated. Further, at the time of the accident, the juvenile was above the age of 16 but under the age of 18 years. The Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 (JJ Act) permits the Juvenile Justice Board (Board) to determine whether a juvenile offender (between the ages of 16 and 18 years) can be tried as an adult. based on the offense committed and the mental maturity of the offender.
- In the instant case, the Board held that juvenile ‘A’ had committed a heinous offence and is to be tried as an adult. An appeal filed in the Children’s Court (CC) with regards to the above holding was dismissed. Thereafter, in an appeal by Juvenile ‘A’ (through his mother) to the Delhi High Court, it was held that due to the non-providing of a minimum sentence for the offence in question (section 304 of IPC), the offence wouldn’t come under the purview of section 2(33) (heinous offences) of the JJ Act. This order of the Delhi High Court has been challenged by the Appellant in the Supreme Court in the instant case.
The Supreme Court’s literal interpretation
After comprehending the basic considerations and initial submissions, the issue of interpretation was delineated by Justice Gupta as: Whether an offence stipulating a maximum imprisonment sentence of more than 7 years, but not prescribing any minimum sentence, or prescribing a minimum sentence of less than 7 years, can be interpreted to be a ‘heinous offence’ as under section 2 (33) of the JJ Act.
Commencement of Interpretation
The Court sets a rigid tone and commences with the elucidation upon the interpretational issue by discussing the genesis of the JJ Act, emphasizing upon how it has been repeatedly held in several writ petitions[vi] that stricter treatment of juveniles in conflict with law, and their classification for the same is a matter of legislative concern and the Court cannot meddle therein.
Before delving into the interpretation issue, the Court looked into the relevant provisions.
‘Petty offences’ [section 2(45) of the JJ Act] are those offences for which the maximum punishment under any law, including the IPC, is imprisonment up to 3 years. ‘Serious offences’ [section 2(54) of the JJ Act] are those offences for which the punishment prescribed under any law is imprisonment between 3-7 years. ‘Heinous offences’ [section 2(33) of the JJ Act] mean those offences for which the minimum punishment under any law is imprisonment for 7 years or more.
Further, section 14 of the JJ Act states the procedure which the Board has to follow while it conducts an enquiry regarding a child in conflict with law under various categories of offences.
It’s indispensable to mention section 15 of the JJ Act which states the preliminary assessment procedure for the Board to deal with heinous offences, when the child in conflict with law is above the age of 16 years. This assessment is merely to evaluate the physical and mental capacity of the child to commit such an offence and his ability to comprehend the consequences of the alleged offence; this assessment isn’t a trial but a mode to evaluate the capacities of the child.
Furthermore, section 19 of the JJ Act elucidates upon the powers of the CC to evaluate whether a child actually needs to be tried as an adult or not, in addition to taking care of reformative measures, skill development and regular follow-ups by authorities.
Lastly, section 21 of the JJ Act explicitly states that no child in conflict with law shall receive a death sentence or life imprisonment without the possibility of release whether he’s tried under the JJ Act, the IPC, or any other law.
The Interpretational Dilemma: Literal Rule to the Rescue
The counsel for the Appellant (Mr. Luthra) introduced the loophole in law through his submissions, stating that if the definitions of petty, serious and heinous offences in the JJ Act are read and interpreted literally, then a certain category of offences would remain untouched and uncovered by the JJ Act. Moreover, if the definition of heinous offences is read literally then only those offences which prescribe a minimum sentence of 7 years and above become punishable under the JJ Act, thereby excluding a bunch of offences falling within a certain 4th category– this category constitutes offences where the minimum sentence is less than 7 years, or there is no minimum sentence provided but, the maximum sentence is greater than 7 years, some of these offences being counterfeiting of currency, homicide not amounting to murder (as in the instant case), waging of war with the government among other offences under the IPC. Mr. Luthra balances on the precipice of interpretation and submits that the legislature would’ve never intended to exclude this 4th class of offences and such offences can be included in some category at least. He thus goes on to submit that if the word “minimum” is obliterated from the definition of ‘heinous offences’, then all the offences other than petty and serious offences would come under the ambit of ‘heinous offences’. Mr. Luthra seems to advance the golden rule of interpretation as he warns of absurdity in interpretation if the 4th category of offences is excluded entirely; he also submits that the application of the doctrine of surplusage (excessive or irrelevant matter) to remove the word “minimum” would lend to a correct interpretation of the statute. Contending this suggestion of interpretation, counsel for the juvenile, Mr. Rohatgi states that rewriting of law isn’t the Court’s function and that the legislative intent can’t merely be decrypted by the Court on the sole ground that a particular category of offences have been left out. Further, if a lacuna subsists in the Act’s scheme, the Legislature will take on the reigns of amendment, and not the judiciary.
The Court acknowledged the interpretational predicament and accepted that if Mr. Luthra’s submissions are executed, then the interpretational issue would be resolved, and a proper set of 3 categories of offences will stand, with no offences being left out. However, the Court conversely observed that the judiciary is to engage in the interpretation of statutes as per the legislative intent and the language of the legislation, not as per its own whims and fancies.
The Court further solved the interpretational question by citing Justice G.P. Singh’s treatise[vii] and a House of Lords judgment[viii] to elaborate upon the doctrine of surplusage as a constraint to the conventional rule of strict construction. In the instant case, even though there’s a 4th category of offences which hasn’t been dealt with in the JJ Act, certainty can’t be presumed with regards to the intention of the legislature to include this 4th category of offences under ‘heinous offences’. Merely because the removal of the word ‘minimum’ would render the Act workable, it’s not an independent ground to hold ‘minimum’ as surplusage.
The attempt to draw attention towards Minister’s speeches as an external aid of interpretation by Mr. Luthra was foiled by the Court as they cannot represent the combined legislative voice. The Court boldly observed that in situations where the legislative intent is clear, the Judge can surpass the hurdles imposed by shoddy or clumsy wording, however, if the statute wordings are facilely decipherable but the legislative intent seems hazy, the Court can neither add nor delete any words to gift meaning to the legislative intent. Unfortunately, in the instant case, the legislative intent seems hazy, making additions and deletions of words impermissible.
The Court confirmed the purpose of the JJ Act to be the separate and careful handling of the children in conflict with law to prevent their handling as adults. Thus, it would be logically amiss to state that the legislative intent was to include all offences having a punishment of more than 7 years in the class of ‘heinous offences.’ Since the linguistics of the provision are clear while providing a minimum sentence of 7 years imprisonment while dealing with heinous offences, then the judiciary can’t merely wish gone the word ‘minimum’.
Mr. Luthra urged the court to notice the inclusive nature of the definition of ‘heinous offences’ in the JJ Act as it contained the word ‘includes’, thus possessing the potential to include what may not be mentioned in the definition. However, this argument was rejected because even the definitions of petty and serious offences constitute the word ‘includes’; the word ‘includes’ therein appears as a surplusage (as no inclusions can be incorporated into this complete definition). Owing to the schemes of section 14, 15 and 19, it’s obvious that the legislature intended for the juvenile to be tried as an adult only after thorough assessment. Further, even in the event of commission of a ‘heinous offence’, the child is not to be mechanically tried as an adult- this lucidly elaborates upon the point of contention that that the meaning of the words ‘heinous offence’ can’t be broadened by eliminating the word ‘minimum’ from the definition.
Justice Gupta hasn’t strayed even slightly away from the literal interpretation of the statutory text as he has neither read nor written down the word ‘minimum,’ hasn’t held it a surplusage, and stuck to the legislative language by not clubbing the 4th category of offences in the definition of ‘heinous offences.’
The Court did undoubtedly observe a loophole in the JJ Act i.e. no category of the 4th class of offences has been mentioned which ideally the legislature should have mentioned. However, while repeatedly sticking to the literal rule Justice Gupta held that the judiciary isn’t equipped to fill the legislative gaps by holding that this 4th category of offences shouldn’t be included under the heading of heinous offences and that liberal provision interpretation and removal of ‘minimum’ to club the 4th category of offences under ‘heinous offences’ would be a mammoth deviation from the literal rule. Thus by employing the literal rule, the Court disposed off the appeal while holding that an offence which doesn’t provide a minimum sentence of 7 years cannot automatically/liberally be treated as a heinous offence.
While concluding the judgment, the Court ventured into a welfare-oriented approach by acknowledging the defect in law and utilized its powers under Article 142 to hold that since the date of enforcement of the JJ Act, all children who’ve committed offences which fall under the ambit of the 4th category of offences shall be dealt with in a manner similar to those children who’ve committed ‘serious offences,’ until the legislature introduces necessary amendments, for which a copy of the judgment was ordered to be delivered to the appropriate Authorities for venturing into rectification of the legal lacuna.
Conclusion: Mischief Rule as an Alternative Interpretational Method?
Even though Justice Gupta favoured the literal rule of interpretation, the author opines that the mischief rule (as birthed in Heydon’s case[ix]) would’ve been a more appropriate interpretational method. Even though the legislative intent in the case seemed ambiguous, the Court should’ve dug deeper to rectify the defect in the statute (which it readily acknowledged in the judgment) to advance the remedy. The mischief rule holds that it’s the court’s duty to understand the legislative intent to identify the erroneous law and rectify it,[x] as was similarly held in the famed Smith case[xi]. Heydon’s case can be interpreted to assume the very mischief of the law as the commencement point, rather than a specific social problem.[xii]This rule functions as a stopping-point whereby the courts aren’t encouraged to update the statute, instead, the task is rightfully left for the legislature to look into. The judiciary however, is duly signaled to acknowledge the defect, cure it interpretationally for justice, and the legislature is alerted to rectify the legislation. In the instant case, the very apparent defect in the JJ Act was observed by the Court, which it could’ve rectified by reading down the word ‘minimum’ from the definition of heinous offences to ensure that the purpose of the social welfare legislation is fulfilled and an orphaned 4th category of offences can be understood as heinous offences to not let a defaulting juvenile scot-free merely due to a legislative defect.
If the mischief rule would’ve been applied in the instant case, the social scheme of the JJ Act could’ve been unlocked in a judicially elegant fashion. Nonetheless, the author does appreciate the safeguard made by the Court but still ponders over the question: why did the Court shirk from rectifying the defect in the law, even after acknowledging the loophole in open court? On the flip side, it’s only through these interpretational vexations and deliberations that the modern day jurisprudence has assumed its golden form. It’s hoped that this case acts as a guiding light for the future jurisprudential and interpretational questions of a like nature.
[i] Seaford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher, (1949) 2 K.B. 481(498).
[ii] Aiyer P Ramnathan, Law Lexicon 1134 (2nd ed., 2002).
[iii] Nathi Devi v. Radha Devi Gupta, 2000 (9) SCC 249,
[iv] Bhavnagar University v. Palitana Sugar Mills Pvt. Ltd, (2003) 2 SCC 111
[v] Supra note ii.
[vi] Salil Bali v Union of India, (2013) 7 SCC 705 ; Dr. Subramanian Swamy v. Raju Thr. Member Juvenile Justice Board, (2014) 8 SCC 390.
[vii] G. P. Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation 85 (8th edn., 2002).
[viii] Mc. Monagle v. Westminster City Council, (1900) 2 A.C. 716.
[ix] Heydon ‘s case, (1584) 3 Co Rep 7.
[x] Supra note vii.
[xi] Smith v Hughes, (1871) LR 6 QB 597.
[xii] William Twining and David Miers, How to Do Things With Rules: A Primer Of Interpretation 153 (4th ed. 1999).