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As defined in the Black’s Law Dictionary, a Statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs a country, state, city, or county. Typically the statutes command or prohibit something, or declare a policy. The words are often used to distinguish law made by legislative bodies from the judicial decisions of the common law and the regulations issued by Government agencies. The objective of the court is not merely to read the law but also to apply it in a meaningful manner from case to case basis.

Interpretation means the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. The object of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention of the legislature conveyed in an express form or implied form in the language used. As stated by Salmond, “By interpretation or construction is meant, the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.”

The manner in which the courts approach statutes and interpret them has developed over the recent years. There can be mischief in the statute which is required to be cured, and this can be done by applying various norms and theories of interpretation which might go against the literal meaning at times. The purpose behind interpretation is to clarify the meaning of the words used in the statutes which might not be that clear. The Rules of Interpretations are :

Literal Rule

The literal rule considers what the law says, not what the law meant or the spirit of law. It only considers the original meaning of the word. Here the judges do not come up with the words and interpret according to the case basis.

Golden Rule

This rule is also called the British rule of interpretation. It is in a way statutory interpretation which allows the judge to depart from the normal meaning of a word in order to avoid an absurd result. This method of interpretation is also known as the compromise method between literal rule and the mischief rule.

The rule is used in two main situations: Firstly, if the meaning of the word is too narrow or Secondly if the word itself has ambiguity or absurdity.

Mischief Rule

The mischief rule is in a way statutory interpretation where it attempts to determine the intention of the legislators. It first originated in the 16th century by the Heydon’s case in the United Kingdom, the main objective of this is to find out the mischief and defect of the previous statute which was in question and how the new statute will come up with the remedy that resolves the defect.

Harmonious Construction

This rule of interpretation is used when there is a conflict between two or more statutes or between two provisions of the same statute. Supreme Court explained harmonious rule as to when the two provisions of the same legislation are inconsistent with each other, both the provisions must be interpreted in such a way where it gives s equal importance to other.

Aids in Interpretation

Jurists take the help of both Rules and Aids in interpretating the Statutes. As stated by the Supreme Court in K.P. Varghese v. Income Tax Officer, Ernakulam, interpretation of statute being an exercise in the ascertainment of meaning, everything which is logically relevant should be admissible. A Rule should be uniform or established course of things. There are primarily three rules of interpretation of statutes- Literal, Golden and Mischief. An Aid is a device that helps or assists the court to find the true meaning.

Interpretation is the process of finding out the true spirit of the enactment. This helps in ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in statutory. The main objective of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention of the legislature when the meaning of the words is expressly or impliedly mentioned. Courts sometimes interpret the statute in an arbitrary manner, so to overcome all these confusions, certain principles have evolved. These principles are called the ‘Rules of Interpretation’.

Rules of interpretation act as a tool in determining the meaning of the act which is mainly divided into two:

Internal Aid: The internal evidence derived from the Act itself.

External Aid: The external evidence derived from extraneous circumstances, such as previous legislation and decided cases, etc.

Internal Aids

Judges while interpreting a statute takes multiple things into consideration. Determining the primary meaning of the statutory words and if there is ambiguity in the meaning of the words. Answers to the questions of ambiguity will be there in the statute itself. Those are called ‘Internal Aids’ Comprising Long title, Short Title, The Preamble.

External Aids

When internal aids are inadequate for the interpretation, Judges may take course of external aids. If the wordings are uncertain, historical setting may be considered to arrive at the proper construction, which covers parliamentary history, historical facts, statement of objects and reasons, report of expert committees.


The basic meaning of the prospective overruling is construing an earlier decision in such a manner that it would not have a binding effect to the parties of the original matter, and still changing the law, applying it only prospectively to the future cases. In Simpler words the court is laying down a new law for the future.

The two aspects to the doctrine of prospective overruling are : Firstly, according to Lord Blackstone's theory, Judges don't make the law, their job is to define the law and that they should follow the doctrine of “Stare Decisis”. The doctrine of Stare Decisis means "to stand by precedent and not to disturb the settled point of law"

The Law should be changed with the changing needs and therefore the doctrine of Prospective Overruling is an important tool in the hand of the judiciary to give fair and timely justice to its citizens.

Justice Mathew explains the rationale behind the doctrine by observing that it is not meant to replace the Blackstonian doctrine but is a essential principle in any system of law to protect the interest of the public when judicial overruling of a precedent entails a change in the law.


It is an accepted fact that when a judicial declaration is made, it not only applies to that particular case but its ratio would apply to the future cases too. This precedent is considered to be a major source of law.

This means that when a law is declared invalid, then it is deemed to be invalid from its very beginning. This is somewhat the Blackstonian view of the law that the duty of the court is “not to pronounce a new rule but to maintain and expound the old one”.

This principle of prospective overruling is borrowed from the American Constitution, was first mentioned in the case of I. C.Golaknath v. The State of Punjab]. The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling states that the decision of a case would not have a retrospective operation but would operate only in the future,


From the time of the remarkable decision of Justice Cardozo in the famous Great Northern Railway v. Sunburst Oil & Refining Co. this doctrine has been highly identified. Significantly, He observed:

“A state in defining the limits of adherence to precedent may make a choice for itself between the principle of forwarding operation and that of relation backwards. It may say that decisions of its highest court, though later overruled, are law none the less for intermediate transactions. Indeed, cases are intimating, too broadly, that it must give them that effect; but never has doubt been expressed that it may so treat them if it pleases, whenever injustice or hardship will thereby be averted.”

Since this case, there have been many debates as to the merits of this doctrine.

Applicability of Prospective Overruling in India

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling was established by the Supreme Court in the case of I. C. Golak Nath v State of Punjab.

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling is different from the traditional Blackstonian view of the law, that is the duty of the Court was "not to pronounce a new rule but to maintain and expound the old one".

In the case of Naryanan Nair v. State of Kerala, Justice Mathew explains the driving force of the doctrine by observing that it had been not meant to exchange the Blackstonian doctrine but it was essentially meant to protect the interests of the public when judicial overruling of a precedent entailed a change within the law. After effect, the doctrine lays down the opportunity of the pronouncement in a particular case and mentions about its applicability to future cases and disputes. The nature of prospective overruling is that the Supreme Court wanted that the overruled previous judgment has got to operate with the purpose to avoid reopening of settled dispute.


The Credit goes to Chief Justice Subba Rao who first invoked the doctrine of prospective overruling in India. He analysed the objections that had been laid down against the use of the doctrine of prospective overruling. It is as follows:

Justice Rao rebutted the objections and supported the legitimacy of the doctrine of prospective overruling and stated that overruling as a concept includes within its ambit the discretion to decide whether a specific decision will be having a retrospective effect or not. He even stated what’s being laid down cannot be said to be the obiter as to what the court is doing in effect is to declare the law and by the use of doctrine to restrict its scope. According to the him, what is being done is practically balance between the two conflicts, which are, that a court finds law and that a court makes law.

He went on to state that the Indian Constitution does not explicitly or by necessary implication talk against this doctrine. He mentions that Articles 32,141, and 142 enable this Court to put together legal doctrines to meet the ends of justice. He says that the power of the Court to proclaim law under Article 141 also gives the power to declare that the law should only have a prospective effect. He wanted us to realise that it was high time we recognized the potential of new doctrines.


The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling has been out in the open to both criticism and appreciation since its use in Indian jurisprudence. The minority judgement delivered in the Golaknath case had strongly condemned the use of this Doctrine and favoured the Blackstonian view. Further, renowned jurist, Mr. H.M. Seervai, strongly criticised this Doctrine and stated it would lead to reconsideration of the theory of ultra vires, which makes the application of this doctrine in the Golaknath case irrational and the amendments thereof, were also violative of fundamental rights.

The proposition dictated in the Golaknath case does not only provide a certain form of guideline but also delivers insight and a logical explanation as to why if the application of this doctrine continued it will prove to be productive for socio-economic setup of Indian legal jurisprudence. It would not only reflect the law-making power of the judiciary but also concurrently strikes a balance with the theory of Stare Decisis.

In Ganga Ram Moolchandani v. The State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court firmly settled that the application of the scope of this doctrine of prospective overruling would not be limited to matters of the Constitutional nature, as held in Golak Nath case but would extend to the interpretation of other statutes too.


The judiciary has sadly misunderstood the doctrine of prospective overruling with prospective effect given to the decisions.

One can very well understand the serious repercussions that would have arosen if the amendments considered in the Golak Nath’s case were to be held invalid. In such a scenario, it would have resulted in a disordered situation. Thus, the invocation of this doctrine is adequate in such situations as it is within their inherent power of judicial review.

However, the application of this principle should not be left to the discretions of the judges. And the judiciary should be very careful and must use this sparingly, as careless use could lead to a very grave injustice being caused to the litigants. If the courts use the principle cautiously and sparingly, it will turn out to be a successful addition and will give the criticism to it.



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