Law- Statutory Interpretation


The Literal Rule (1)

Judges give words in statutes their ordinary natural dictionary meaning, even if it results in an absurd outcome to cases. For example, in WHITELY v CHAPPELL (1868) D was charged under a statute which made it an offence to impersonate any person ‘entitled to vote.’ D had pretended to be a person whose name was on the voters’ list, but who had died. The court held that D was not guilty since a dead person is not, in the literal meaning of the words, ‘entitled to vote’.  

Where words have a technical legal meaning then, under the literal rule, this will be used. In FISHER v BELL (1960) D was a shopkeeper who had displayed a flick knife marked with a price in his shop window. He was charged under a statute for making an ‘offer for sale’ of the flick knife.  There is a technical legal meaning of ‘offer for sale’ from contract law, under which putting an article in a shop window is not an offer to sell. The court used the literal rule and applied the technical legal meaning of ‘offer for sale’ from contract law. This meant D was not guilty of making an ‘offer for sale’. 

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The Golden Rule (1)

The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and may be used if a judge considers that the literal rule would lead to an absurd outcome. 

The judges have applied the golden rule in a narrow way - where words are capable of having more than one meaning, the meaning that is least absurd should be used. In ADLER v GEORGE  D was caught inside an RAF base where he was staging a protest. He was accused under a statute with obstructing a member of the armed forces ‘in the vicinity of’ the base. His defence was that as he was inside the RAF base he could not be ‘in the vicinity’ as this meant ‘near to’. The court held that ‘in the vicinity of’ could mean ‘near to’ or ‘near to and within’ and chose the second meaning to secure a conviction. 

 The judges have also used the golden rule in a wider way. Here the golden rule is used to modify clear words in a statute to avoid an absurdity. In RE SIGSWORTH  a son had murdered his mother. The mother had not made a will, so normally her estate would have been inherited by her next of kin according to the rules set out in a statute. There was no ambiguity in the words of the Act, but it would not be in the public interest to let a murderer benefit from his crime, so it was held that the literal rule should not apply. Instead, using the golden rule in a wider way, the court modified the clear wording of the Act to prevent the son inheriting the estate. 

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The Mischief Rule (1)

This method was laid down in HEYDON’S CASE (1584), and provides that judges should consider four factors when interpreting a statute:

  • 1. what was the common law before the statute?; and
  • 2. what problem, or ‘mischief’, was the statute trying to remedy?; and
  • 3. what was the remedy proposed by Parliament?; and
  • 4. what was the true reason for that remedy?
  • The judges should then interpret the statute in such a way as to put a stop to the mischief. 

The mischief rule was used in SMITH v HUGHES (1960) to interpret the offence of a prostitute soliciting ‘in a street or public place’. The court considered appeals by two women. One had been attracting male customers from a balcony and the other had been at the window of a ground floor room. The court decided that they had been rightly convicted by magistrates because the mischief aimed at by the statute was to enable people to walk along the streets without being harassed by prostitutes. Thus the statute was interpreted to stop this ‘mischief’. It did not matter that the women were not literally on the street.  

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The Mischief Rule (2)

In ROYAL COLLEGE OF NURSING v DHSS (1981) there was a statute which provided that a lawful abortion could be carried out by a ‘registered medical practitioner’. This clearly covered doctors, but what about nurses? Advances in medical science meant that from the early 1970s surgical abortions by doctors were largely replaced with abortions using drugs by nurses, without a doctor being present. On appeal, a majority of judges interpreted the relevant statute to stop the mischief of illegal abortions where no medical care was available and allow nurses to carry out abortions in a hospital. 

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The Purposive Approach

The purposive approach requires the court to work out the general purpose of Parliament in passing the Act and then interpret the Act to fulfil that purpose. The courts look at the wording in the Act, but are also willing to look outside the Act for meaning – e.g. Hansard may be available. This approach allows the courts to read words into a statute where there are gaps. It is the spirit rather than the letter of the law which is important. The court may look at the purpose of the statute even where the words used are clear. 

In COLTMAN v BIBBY TANKERS (1978) a statute imposed liability on an employer for the death of an employee caused by defective equipment supplied by that employer. C died when a ship he was working on capsized because it had a defective hull, and the court had to decide whether a ship was ‘equipment’. The relevant Act contained a definition section, which defined ‘equipment’, but this did not refer to a ship. Despite this oversight by Parliament, the judges held that ‘equipment’ could include a ship. The company was liable because the general purpose of the Act was to make the employer liable for harm caused by defects in anything provided by the employer. 

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The Purposive Approach (2)

In R v REGISTRAR-GENERAL, EX PARTE SMITH (1990) D was a violent murderer who had mental health problems. Having found out that he was adopted, Smith tried to find out the identity of his natural mother which he was entitled to know under the ADOPTION ACT 1976. The Registrar-General refused. Despite the fact that Smith was entitled to this information under the wording of the statute, the court held that it would go against the general purpose of the statute to provide information to someone who might, at some stage, use it to cause harm. 

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Internal Aids to Interpretation

  • Whichever approach the judges take to statutory interpretation, (i.e. literal or more purposive), they have a range of material or ‘aids’ to help them find ‘the intention of Parliament.’  
  • Internal aids are clues within the statute itself that may help to make its meaning clearer. These include: 
  • 1. The short and long title of the statute. The long title is good for the mischief and purposive approaches in that it may give clues as to the purpose of the statute. An example is the THEFT ACT 1968 which says in its long title that it is ‘an Act to revise the law of England and Wales as to theft and similar … offences.’ 
  • 2. Definition sections. These set out lists of what meanings are intended for certain words used elsewhere in the statute. For example, there is a definition section which defines ‘property’ in the THEFT ACT 1968. 
  • 3. Schedules towards the end of the statute which give extra detail required by earlier parts of the statute. For example, schedule 1 of the THEFT ACT 1968 gives extra detail on the crime of taking or destroying fish. 
  • 4. The preamble (introduction to the statute). Older statutes often have a preamble that may provide a useful clue of the purpose of the statute or the mischief in the common law the statute was designed to remedy. Modern statutes tend not to have them. 
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External Aids to Interpretation

External aids are materials which are outside a statute which the judges may use, together with the various approaches to interpretation, to help them interpret that statute. External aids include: 

1. An authorised dictionary of the year the statute was passed. This is useful for the literal rule. 

2. A law reform report (such as a Law Commission report) on which the statute is based. This is useful for the mischief rule. 

3. The INTERPRETATION ACT 1978 can be used if the word is covered by the 1978 Act – e.g. ‘he’ includes ‘she’. 

4. Hansard (the official record of what is said in Parliament) can be consulted where the word or phrase being interpreted was discussed in a parliamentary debate. The case of PEPPER v HART (1993) allowed Hansard to be consulted in limited circumstances. This is useful for the purposive approach. 

5. An international treaty entered into by the UK if the word is defined there. 

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European Union Law

1. From the time when the UK became a member of the EU, the influence of the European preference for the purposive approach has affected the English courts in two ways:

i. The English courts have had to accept that for national law which has been passed as a result of having to conform to a European law, the purposive approach is the correct one to use.

ii. The fact that judges have had to use the purposive approach for European law for over 40 years has made them more accustomed to it and, therefore, more likely to apply it to English law. Even though the UK is leaving the EU, our judges are likely to continue to use the purposive approach. 

2. Where the national law to be interpreted (e.g. a statute) is based on European law, the English courts have to interpret it in the light of the wording and purpose of the European law: MARLEASING SA (1992). When the UK leaves the EU this will no longer apply. 

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Human Rights Act 1998

Section 3 of the HUMAN RIGHTS ACT 1998 says that, so far as it is possible to do so, legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights. This only applies to a case where one of the rights is a human right. 

In MENDOZA v GHAIDAN (2002) the question was whether the survivor of a same sex partnership had the right to take over the tenancy of a flat. The Court of Appeal interpreted the RENT ACT 1977 so that it conformed to the European Convention on Human Rights which forbids discrimination on the ground of gender. This allowed same sex partners to have the same rights to a tenancy as unmarried opposite sex couples.  

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