Jurisprudential Aspects and Significance of Rule of Purposive Interpretation

Vijay Awana
Advocate, Supreme Court of India

Volume II – Issue II, 2020

The phrase “purposive interpretation” occurs often in court decisions and legal literature alike. The common thread running through most references to purposive interpretation is the understanding that “purpose” is a subjective term. It reflects, at various levels of abstraction, but mostly at the highest levels of abstraction, the intention of the text’s creator. Bennion, who devotes a lengthy chapter to purposive interpretation notes that the historical source of purposive interpretation is the mischief rule established in Heydon’s Case. The purposive approach has gained support in recent years. In 1969 the Law Commission urged the courts to implement this approach. It has been the long-established approach of the courts in European jurisdictions. The statutes in these countries are articulated in broad general principles and the courts “fill the gaps” by interpreting them in the context of their legislative purpose.

In relation to statutory interpretation and the purposive approach, ‘what is at stake is the separation of powers and respect by the judicial branch of government for the powers of the legislative branch.’ It is clear that although the purposive approach may result in some benefits, its application brings with it significant difficulties and problems. The Purposive Approach to statutory interpretation can be seen as an extension of the Mischief Rule. Instead of confining itself simply to the mischief which the statute was intended to correct, the court resolves ambiguities by reference to the statute’s overall purpose. Indeed, many modern statutes are not simply intended to correct mischief’s in the common law but have a wider social agenda. Under the purposive approach the courts should try to give effect to this wider statutory purpose in interpreting ambiguous provisions in statutes.


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