Mischief Rule of Interpretation

The mischief rule of statutory interpretation is the oldest of the rules.

The mischief rule is a rule of statutory interpretation that attempts to determine the legislator’s intention. Its main aim is to determine the “mischief and defect” of the statue. 

The mischief rule was established in Heydon’s Case in 1584. It was held the mischief rule should only be applied where there is ambiguity in the statute. Under the mischief rule, the Court’s role is to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy. The Courts while applying the principles tries to find out the real intention behind the enactment. This rule thus assists the court in identifying the proper construction of statutory wording according to the original intention of the legislators.

As per this rule, for the true interpretation of a statute, four things have to be considered:

  • What was the common law before the making of the Act?
  • What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide?
  • What remedy Parliament had resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth?
  • The true reason for the remedy.

The purposes of the Act and the mischief rule are, therefore, closely connected, and it is very genuine to look at the long title. Another example of the application of the mischief rule is found in Ohison v. Hylton[1975] 2 All E.R. 490. The facts, briefly, were a carpenter was on his way home from work. He boarded a train which was crowded. Another passenger objected and subsequently both finished up on the platform. The defendant, the carpenter, took one of his tools of his trade, a hammer, from his briefcase and struck the other man with it. He was charged under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. Lord Widgery, CJ, said, inter alia:

This is a case in which the mischief at which the statute is aimed appears to me to be very clear. Immediately prior to the passing of the 1953 Act the criminal law was adequate to deal with the actual use of weapons in the course of a criminal assault. Where it was lacking, however, was that the mere carrying of offensive weapons was not an offence. The long title of the Act reads as follows:

‘An Act to prohibit the carrying of offensive weapons in public places without lawful authority or reasonable excuse’. Parliament is there recognizing the need for preventive justice where, by preventing the carriage of offensive weapons in a public place, it reduced the opportunity for the use of such weapons. If, however, the prosecutor is right, the scope goes far beyond the mischief aimed at, and in every case where an assault is committed with a weapon and in a public place an offence under the 1953 Act can be charged in addition to the charge of assault. Whilst on the subject of offensive weapons, mention must be made of the Divisional Court’s decision in Gibson v. Wales(1983) 147 J. P. 143, which decided that a “flick knife” is an offensive weapon per se.’

The mischief rule directs that the Courts must adopt that construction which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy. But this does not mean that construction should be adopted which ignores the plain natural meaning of the words or disregard the context and the collection in which they occur (Umed Singh v. Raj Singh).

In Sodra Devi’s case(1957 AIR 832), the Supreme Court has expressed the view that the rule in Heydon’s case is applicable only when the words in the question are ambiguous and are reasonably capable of more than one meaning. 

In Smith v. Huges, 1960 WLR 830, in this case around the 1960s, the prostitutes were soliciting in the streets of London and it was creating a huge problem in London. This was causing a great problem in maintaining law and order. To prevent this problem, Street Offences Act, 1959 was enacted. After the enactment of this act, the prostitutes started soliciting from windows and balconies. Further, the prostitutes who were carrying on to solicit from the streets and balconies were charged under section 1(1) of the said Act. But the prostitutes pleaded that they were not solicited from the streets. The court held that although they were not soliciting from the streets yet the mischief rule must be applied to prevent the soliciting by prostitutes and shall look into this issue. Thus, by applying this rule, the court held that the windows and balconies were taken to be an extension of the word street and charge sheet was held to be correct.

In Kanwar Singh v. Delhi Administration, AIR 1965 SC 871, issues of the case were as follows- section 418 of Delhi Corporation Act, 1902 authorised the corporation to round up the cattle grazing on the government land. The MCD rounded up the cattle belonging to Kanwar Singh. The words used in the statute authorised the corporation to round up the abandoned cattle. It was contended by Kanwar Singh that the word abandoned means the loss of ownership and those cattle which were round up belonged to him and hence, was not abandoned. The court held that the mischief rule had to be applied and the word abandoned must be interpreted to mean let loose or left unattended and even the temporary loss of ownership would be covered as abandoned.

In Regional Provident Fund Commissioner v. Sri Krishna Manufacturing Company, AIR 1962 SC 1526, Issue was that the respondent concerned was running a factory where four units were for manufacturing. Out of these four units one was for paddy mill, other three consisted of flour mill, saw mill and copper sheet units. The number of employees there were more than 50. The RPFC applied the provisions of Employees Provident Fund Act, 1952 thereby directing the factory to give the benefits to the employees. The person concerned segregated the entire factory into four separate units wherein the number of employees had fallen below 50, and he argued that the provisions were not applicable to him because the number is more than 50 in each unit. It was held by the court that the mischief rule has to be applied and all the four units must be taken to be one industry, and therefore, the applicability of PFA was upheld.

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