The Judges Responsibility is to expound the law and not to legislate.

judges responsibility

The premise of the doctrine of interpretation is that the court has to interpret law as it stands[1] .According to these doctrines, the function of the court is to interpret the language of a statute[2], whereas it is for the legislature to make such enactments and for the court to enact such enactments[3]. They can only interpret laws and not make it. In Heydon’s case[4], a question was raised regarding the interpretation of an enactment, where it was declared that the court has to look into the intent of the legislature which can be ascertained from the words in the statute itself. The intention of the legislature has two aspects: first, meaning of the words and second, purpose and object or the reason and spirit which is flowing through the statute. The process of the construction therefore involves combination of both literal and purposive approach. This formulation later acquired the approval of the SC when it was called as the cardinal principle of construction[5].

Moreover, there is always the possibility of cases falling outside or within the connotation of a word ‘fringe’. This problem is serious in the interpretation of a statute law as when the enacting process of a law is completed, the Legislature becomes functus officio with respect to the particular statute, so that it cannot interpret the statute itself. The legislature however can repeal or amend or declare the meaning of any previous statute but only after a making a fresh statute and following the normal process of law making[6]. Thus in such cases the court has to look essentially into the words of the statute t make out if the referent is aiding their effort by the context.  A question was raised before the court if a railway workmen who was engaged in the oiling and cleaning also was engaged in repairing of the same. The court however, answered in the negative and it was stated by Lord Jowitt that it is impossible to fix any definite point at which the maintenance ends and repair starts.

In spite of facing such problems the courts however do not try to make a dividing line and decide if a case is falling within the purview of the relevant statute depends upon the general working principles[7]. This is necessary in order to prevent the diversion of attention from the language used in the statute to the designating test.

Similarly the legislature relies on the past and present situations and information before creating a statute and therefore uses general words which could be extended to the problems in the future[8]. However, since it is impossible for the legislature to forestall all such circumstances which will occur after the enactment such statute and there can be instances where the application such statute can be called for. Further, these referents which are used to cover future instances are usually not clear or that they are general in nature and therefore result in confusion during their interpretation[9]. The legislative intent in these cases is a fiction representing the attitude of the judges in arriving at an answer by creating a balance between the words of the statute as well as the spirit of the statute without acknowledging in any way that they have supplemented the statute[10]. Though the duty of the judges is to expound the law and not to legislate, there is a marginal area where the courts can creatively interpret legislation which comes to them in a state requiring processing[11]. In all such cases the courts have provided a definition clause to add or remove something which was not done prima facie by the words of the Legislature. These definition clauses also include cases where judges can be seen filling the gaps left by the intention of the legislature by adding the words not contained in the statute or by reaching at some conclusion[12]. But such an attitude of the judges should be discouraged and the there should adherence to the intention of the legislature and decreasing the room for judicial law making to minimum.

However, there can be instances where it is found that the words used by the legislature are ambiguous, but even in such cases the power and the duty of the court is limited. This means that once it has been established that a particular provision has been lawfully, hands of the court will be bind and the provision should be given the legitimate effect[13]. However, while endorsing the importance of the letter of the law to determine the intention of the legislature Salmond has provided with two exceptions, he says that there can be cases where the literal egis is not conclusive or the senentia legis may be sought from other indications. The first case refers to those situations where the letter of the law is logically defective, that is when it is incapable of giving a single, coherent idea. The second instance relates to those cases where the text of the statute gives an irrational answer and it is apparent that the legislature couldn’t have meant what has been stated in the statute. Hence, the main purpose of the interpretation is to rectify the senentia legis through logical means and satisfying the dormant if not the conscious intent of the legislature[14].

In the court of law, the intent of the legislature can be determined through what has been determined from what has been either expressly stated in the statute or by the reasonable and necessary implication. But the necessary implication cannot be determined without taking into consideration the purpose or the object of the statute, this because it will result in reducing the legislation to futility.

The elementary principle of interpreting any word while considering the statute is to determine their senentia legis on the basis of the expounding the meaning of the words of the statute in their natural and ordinary sense, provided the words mentioned are clear and unambiguous in nature and there is no need to go elsewhere to discover their meaning[15]. Moreover, the court is not open to read a limitation in a statute so as to attain the probable intention. The intention can only be ascertained from what has been stated in the statute and in a court of law what has been unexpressed has the same value as unintended[16]. Therefore, any interpretation needing assistance by substitution, addition or rejection of the words should be avoided[17]. The court is not entitled to alter the language of any section so as to conform it to the supposed intention of the legislature[18].

Cases illustrating interpretive techniques

The following cases illustrate the various interpretative techniques used by the courts to decide the disputes and interpret the legislation’s in harmony with the legislative intention.

In the case of Arakhita v. Revenue Officer[19], the case was regarding the interpretation of  section 44 of the Orissa land Reforms Act’ 1960, which provided for a right to appeal from the decisions of the revenue officer. The unamended section contained the words ‘shall be final’ but the expression was subsequently deleted by the amendment. The question before the court was whether the effect of the amendment was to ensure that Section 59 of the Act, which was a supervening provision for revision of the appellate decisions, would apply to the section 44 after the deletion of the words ‘shall be final’.

The court held that an amendment by the legislature was indicative of the legislative intent. The legislature must have intended to keep the proceedings under section 44 as final and must have further, intended to remove the right of application under section 59 to proceedings under section 44.

In arriving at the decision the court observed that the as enacted statute cannot be explained by the individual opinions or even by the entire resolution of the legislature. Once the enacting process is over, the legislature becomes ‘functous officio’ so far as that particular “statute is concerned and it cannot itself interpret it.  Interpretation is left to the court but where the court is not able to gather the true intent of the legislature, the legislature intervenes and by amendment makes their intention clear and explicit”.

Hence, the court held that the function of the court is to interpret and not to legislate, and the court cannot fill up the gap under the guise of interpretation[20].

In the case of Piara Singh v. Mula Singh[21], the case dealt with Section 11 of the ‘Indian Soldiers Litigation Act’ 1918. The section provided for Indian soldiers the computation period of limitation prescribed for any suit would exclude the period from 4th August 1914 WW I till the time the soldier was serving in the war. The controversy related to whether the benefit section 11 would accrue only in favor of men who were currently serving in the British Indian army, or would it extend to all soldiers who had served as soldiers. This controversy became prominent in the case as the plaintiff was not serving in the British Indian army at the time of instituting the statute.

The court held that the language of the section was plain in its meaning and that the section 11 could only be availed if the person was serving in the army at the of institution of the suit, and his prior service in the army did not amounted to the benefit under section 11. In its application of the plain interpretive rule, the court rejected an argument of the plaintiff to take the beneficial construction of the section.

Further, in the case of Minning officer v. Tata Steel and Co.[22], the case was in relation to the constitutional validity of the Cess and other taxes on the minerals (Validation) Act’ 1992. While the state argued that the objective of the Act was to validate the collection of Cess and taxes on the extraction of minerals due till the date of validation, the respondents argued that the object of the Act was to validate 11 state acts which have been declared null and void by the SC because they permitted the state to collect Cess and taxes on extraction of minerals. This right to collect Cess and taxes had been usurped by the Union through the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act’ 1957, and hence the states were incompetent to do the same.

The state argued that the purpose of the validation Act was to allow the state to collect cess and taxes prior to the decision of the SC which invalidated the State acts. The respondent further, argued that the objective of the Act was not to allow the collection till the concerned date, but to allow the state to retain the collection that it had maintained till the concerned date.

To determine the true meaning behind the Act, the court extracted the legislative intent behind the Act. In the opinion of the court the intent behind the act was to validate the State Acts and actions taken and things there under. The court relied on the preamble that is ‘an act to validate the imposition and collection of taxes on minerals and certain State laws’, to hold that the meaning behind the expression ‘imposition and collection’ was that the object of the act was only to allow the states to retain the collection it had already made, and not to allow a fresh power of collection. Hence, the court ruled in the favor of the respondents.

Moreover, in the case of Girish Chandra Padhan v. Amrit Bewa[23], an assertion was made that the courts do not perceive their role as spouting machines. The case relates to suit by the respondent whereby he moved to the lower court for the declaration that he was adopted son of Bhairlanji. The suit was decreed by the lower courts where the petitioner argued that the evidence of the witness as well as his written statements revealed that the cause of action arose in 1961, which was 11 years prior to the filing of the suit. Hence, the petitioner argued that the suit was barred by the limitation. The court disagreed with the respondents and stated that to act merely on the face value of the words without trying to know the true meaning of the words by looking at the context, circumstances and the manner if expression would be undeserving as a judge. Hence, in the view of the evidences and the written statements the court held that the suit was barred by limitation and the decision of the lower court is to be overruled.

The constitutional primacy of the judicial review came into the picture in SC Advocates on Record Association v. UOI[24], where the court was required to consider whether an amendment in the process of appointing judges as undertaken in 99th amendment to the constitution and the National Judicial Appointment Commission Act’ 2014 would be in accordance with the mandate of the Constitution.

The court firstly ruled that the process by which the judges were appointed was integral to the judicial review as such review presupposed the independence of the adjudicator from the parties before it. Like in the Madras Bar Association case[25], the court acceded that the parliament was well within the rights to alter the process of appointment provided that the new process was as potent and powerful as the process it was replacing. Vide the 99 amendment the Articles 124 and 217 of the constitution were amended to replace the existing consultative system as interpreted by the judiciary with the NJAC. In the new system the appointments to the Sc and the High Court shall be made by the President on the recommendation of the NJAC. As the amendment and the Act was entwined with each other, the court examined them together, and found both the amendment as well as the act unconstitutional.

Even as the NJAC was chaired by the Chief Justice of India the institutional primacy that was accorded to the Chief Justice of India in the collegium system had been discarded and the Chief Justice of India was no more than a vote in the NJAC.  The objection of any 2 members of the NJAC could stall an appointment and this could be any 2 members in any combination. This was found by the court to be threatening to the judicial independence especially as the qualifications of the eminent persons were not specified neither in the constitution nor in the Act. Thus the qualification of the 2 persons who could significantly affect the appointment process were relegated to the rues whereas the eligibility of the Sc judges was provided in the constitution. Hence, it was held by the court that the appointment process needs to be protected from the executive control, and the process provided in the NJAC placed judicial appointments within the control of the executive.

Significantly, the dissenting judge saw the involvement of the Executive as providing value to the process. It would ensure that the unsuitable persons are not appointed[26], while ensuring that the resources and the experiences of the executive are employed to find the most suitable persons[27]. Interestingly, to ensure that the unsuitable persons are not appointed to NJAC the judge suggested that the full court should vote for the members of the shortlisted panel and the 2 candidates securing the maximum no. of votes shall be appointed on the slots reserved for the eminent persons[28].

The AG argued that in democratic countries the primary importance is given to the legislative intention as the legislature reflects the will of the people in order and as the amendment and the Act both have been passed unanimously by the Parliament they are constitutional in nature. However, this argument was rejected on the ground that it should be based more on the understanding of democracy rather than numerical majority.

Limits on the judiciary while performing the interpretative role

Modification of the language of the statute

Courts must resist themselves from changing the law in guise of interpretation and have to be constantly vigilant in order to curb such practice while exercising their role of decision making.

On judiciary’ power to modify the language of a statute the court said in the case of Crawford v. Spooner[29] , we cannot aid the defective phrasing of the statute but we cannot add or mend the deficiencies which are left there it is not for the court to dispend with or suspend the operation of the part of the statute, and thus usurp the function of the legislature[30].

Hence, the importance of this decision is that the introduction of a lacunae unconsciously by the legislature or the lack of the sufficient forethought could only be cured by it. The courts had no power to defeat the plain intention of the legislature, and the legislature’s lack of thought in drafting would not affect or broaden the power of the judiciary to interpret the law otherwise[31]. It is prudent of the courts to assume that the law makers as representatives of the people enact laws which represent the views and aspirations of the people and which society considers fair and equitable[32].

Policy of the statute and the limitations on the interpretation

On the point of legislative policy, it was observed in the case of Vacher & Sons Ltd v. London Society of Compositor[33], where the court held that the judicial tribunal has nothing to do with the policy of any act which it may be called upon to interpret. That may be the matter for private judgement. The duty of the court and its only duty is to expound the language of the act in accordance with settled rules of construction[34].

If a particular provision of the law was so defective that if enforced, would cause los to government revenue then it is the business of the legislature to amend it[35].

Interpretation as Complementary law making

The need for judicial interpretation to complement the legislature in laying down the law was stated in the case of Rajkot Municipal Corporation v. Majulben Jayantilal Nakum[36], where a roadside tree fell on the person who was walking on the footpath, resulting in the death caused by the injuries. A suit was filed against the appellant corporation for the damages. The question before the court was that whether there was a statutory duty of the corporation to check the healthy condition of the trees periodically and whether the non compliance to such duty would result in liability due to negligence. Court surveyed the law of tort and extracted the legislative intent and held that the duty alleged by the respondent could be read into the Act. Hence, the municipal corporation is liable to pay damages.

In Cellular Operators Association of India v. TRAI[37], the SC stated that the practice of reading down or saving a statute can only occur if the statutory provisions are vague and ambiguous and it is possible to read the intention of legislature from the object of the statute. If the language is clear and unambiguous then it is not possible to read down the provision. The court refused to introduce the words in the impugned legislation that stated the call drop penalty shall only be imposed only if the service provider is at fault.

Reconstructing and Constructing the Law

From 1980’s with the onset of judicial activism the courts saw their own mandate not just in negative terms whereby they strike down unconstitutional laws which fall outside the Constitution. Instead they also saw it as their role to interpret laws which were aimed at lessening social inequalities in such a manner that the larger social purpose prevails over the limitations of the statutory text.

In Manoj Narula v. UOI[38],  it was brought to the notice of the courts that certain people with criminal antecedents had been appointed as Council of Ministers. The petitioner wanted the court to hold that it was a constitutional obligation on the part of the PM not to recommend the names of the persons with criminal antecedents. The petitioner further, argued that if the Constitutional provision is silent on a particular subject the court can fill up the vacuum by issuing necessary orders. Other counsel whose assistance was sought by the court counselled caution in face of the explicit disqualification mentioned Article 102 (i) (e). The court however, accepted the restraint visit advice on legal interpretation.

But it also said that, while interpreting the Article 75(1), a disqualification cannot be added. However, it can be legitimately accepted that the PM while living up to the trust reposed in him would not choose a person against with criminal antecedents against whom the charges have framed for serious offences to become Council of Ministers. This what the constitution expects from the PM, rest has to be left to the wisdom of the PM.


Constitutionalism rather than the constitutional text has stated to determine that the law making of which organ of the State shall prevail, with the NJAC decision pointing into this direction. Similarly the complementary function brings forward the importance of the connection between legislation and adjudication which are necessary for the statutory interpretation, moreover the TRAI case has shown that if the purpose is clear but not legally defensible the courts refuse to perform the complementary function. The Narula case, nevertheless shows how the judiciary has evolved, and that the legislature and the judiciary cannot be kept indifferent spaces without the event of overlapping.

Edited by Sakshi Raje


[1] Abdul Hasan v. Mahmudi Begum AIR 1935Lah 364, p 367, Chand Shankar Sukh lal AIR 1951 All 383 , p 386.

[2] Harish Chandra v. Rex AIR 1949 All 15.

[3] Sohan lal v. Atal Nath, AIR 1933 846, p. 849.

[4] (1584) 76 ER 637.

[5] RMDC v. UOI AIR 1957 SC 628.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Abdur Rahman v. Empero AIR 1935 Cal 316.

[9] Dhirendra Nath v. Nurul Huda AIR 1951 Cal 133, p 136.

[10] Hilder v. Dexter (1902) AC 474.

[11] Gopi Nath v. Thakurdin AIR 1935 All 636.

[12] Id.

[13] Keshavji Ravji Co. V. Commr of Income Tax AIR 1991 SC 1806.

[14] Salmond Jurisprudence, tenth edition, pp 170-73.

[15] Sonya Dagdu v. Manhu Dagdu 1980 Mah LJ 17 AIR 1980 Bom 62.

[16] AIR 1953 SC 225.

[17] Grasim Industries v. Collector of Custom Bombay (2002) 4 SCC 297.

[18] Dattaraya Baliram v. Rambhabai AIR 1936 Bom 236.

[19] AIR 1977 Ori 19.

[20] SS Harishchandra Jain v. Capt. Inder Singh Bedi 177 Jab LJ 312.

[21] 1923 ILR 4 Lah 324, p 326.

[22] AIR 2001 SC 3134, (2001) 7 SCC 358.

[23] (1980) 50 Cut LT 48.

[24] (2016) 5 SCC 1 2015 (11) SCALE 1.

[25] AIR 2015 SC 1571.

[26] Id para 514.

[27] Id para 518.

[28] Id para 522.

[29] 4 MIA 179 p 187.

[30] Ajit Kumar v. Surendra Nath Ghose AIR 1953 Cal 733.

[32] AIR 1970 SC 1880

[33] 1913 AC 117-18.

[34] Abdul Majid v. Nayak AIR 1951 Bom 440.

[35] Gainda Mal v. Madan Mal AIR 1948 EP 30, p 33.

[36] (1997) 9 SCC 552.

[37] AIR 2016 SC 2336.

[38] (2014 )9 SCC 1.