Demystifying Legal Interpretation: Unraveling the Layers of Meaning in the Law

Legal Interpretation

Legal interpretation is a complex term that all judges, lawyers, legal researchers, and anyone else working in the legal system should be aware of. In order to solve public and private disputes, it is crucial to carefully interpret the laws taking into account many principles and considerations.

The legal interpretation process entails many rules such as interpreting and analyzing the words, context, and judicial intentions behind the laws. Moreover, a lot of factors should not be neglected during the process such as looking at the legislative history behind the laws in addition to the economic and social factors that may have affected their creations. The process can be even more nuanced and complicated by the use of judicial precedent, which requires courts to consider previous decisions and rulings in similar cases.

In this blog post, we will shed light on the definition of legal interpretation and its types. Let’s dive deeper!

What Is Legal Interpretation?

Legal interpretation is a type of interpretation that is used to facilitate communication between people speaking different languages in a legal setting. The main goal of legal interpretation is to rightly and accurately interpret the laws to avoid any misunderstandings or inconveniences and ensure that justice is being applied in its best forms.

Legal interpreters face many challenges since each country has its own culture, legal system, and legal terminologies. Thus, they should be well-versed in the differences between legal systems. Furthermore, they should not have any prejudice towards specific legal systems to provide fair interpretations.

Legal interpreters should also abide by the rules of courts and have ethical responsibilities.

In South Africa, legal interpretation is the juridical understanding of South African legislation and requires a thorough understanding of the rules and principles that are set to construct it.

What Are the Types of Legal Interpretation?

Legal interpretation involves the interpretation of any legal text such as constitutions, statutes, wills, and contracts. Each type requires specific rules and methods. Let’s discuss them in detail:

Legal Interpretation of Statutes

Since legal terminologies used by the legislature to issue statutes can sometimes be ambiguous and have various interpretations, the interpretation of statutes is a very important process to ensure that rules or laws can be understood by everyone living in the same country. The following are the rules for the interpretation of statutes:

The Literal Rule

In this case, statutes are interpreted based on the original meanings of words without any substitutions or addition of words during the interpretation process.

The Mischief Rule

By using this rule, interpreters look at the intentions of lawmakers behind issuing the statutes. They also look at the defects that existed in the previous laws and try to highlight the solution in the new laws.

The Golden Rule

This rule gives interpreters the freedom to interpret statutes based on both the intentions of the legislature and the meaning of words. This means that they can change the literal meaning of words to avoid any vagueness or confusion.

Rule of Harmonious Construction

Interpreters apply this rule when there is a conflict between one or more statutes or different parts within one statute.

Legal Interpretation of Constitutions

Since constitutions are laws enacted by supreme authority and have special characteristics, courts have set methods for interpreting the meaning of the provisions inside constitutions. The following are some of such methods:


Textualists focus more on the original meaning of the legal text. They do not look at the intent of ratifiers, drafters, or adopters. They just interpret the text according to the plain meaning and the context in which the legal terms will appear.


The pragmatist approach focuses on studying the practical consequences of interpretations and selecting the interpretation with the best results for people and society.

Moral Reasoning

This approach reveals the morals and ideals behind the text of the Constitution in the interpretation.

The Interpretation of Contracts

Terms used in contracts should be interpreted carefully. If contracts are not interpreted, this will lead to confusion as legal terms will give different meanings. The following are some rules that courts should follow during the interpretation of contracts:

  • Identifying the intention of the parties of the contract
  • Considering the original meanings of the terms of the contract
  • Looking at the context in which the contract was formed
  • Asking the parties to introduce extrinsic evidence if needed

Interpretation of Wills

A testator’s will should be carefully interpreted in order for heirs and beneficiaries to understand them. Ambiguities may also arise from wills, especially if there are multiple assets or group and conditional gifts. Therefore, courts look for the intention behind the language of the will.

Usually, courts interpret the original meaning. However, sometimes, one word may have different meanings.


Legal interpretation is a challenging type of interpretation that requires legal professionals to be knowledgeable enough about the legal terminologies and the rules governing the interpretation. With sufficient knowledge and experience, they can unravel the layers of meaning in the law and arrive at nuanced, well-reasoned interpretations that reflect the complex realities of their legal systems.

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