Statutory Interpretation

Statutory Interpretation revision cards for OCR Law SI. An aid to remember cases.


Statutory Interpretation

As legislation has increased in length and scope; the great majority of legal cases now concern some aspect of statutory interpretation. In practice, it is impossible to draft a statute which covers all eventualities and is free from conflict about its application.

In order to assist judges in determining the meaning of law, ‘rules’ of statutory interpretation have developed through the courts. It is difficult to ascertain the exact intention of Parliament at the time a particular statute was passed, and climate changes may affect this retrospectively. The process of statutory interpretation is creative – the judges themselves develop the law according to their own understanding and interpretive priorities.

1978 – Parliament passed the Interpretation Act – defines ‘he’ as ‘he and she’ etc.

1 of 6

Problems with the Law

  • Dangerous Dogs Act 1995 – broad terms used which are not fully defined
  • College of Nursing v DHSS (1981) over the Abortion Act 1967– technological developments can outdate legislation
  • Cheeseman v DPP (1990) – changes in language (‘passenger’ - dictionary of time needed here)

Absurdities in Literal lead to Golden

2 of 6

The Literal Rule

  • CHAPPELL & WHITELEY (1868) – impersonating a dead person is not impersonating a person entitled to vote
  • R v HARRIS (1836) – ‘stab, cut or wound’ does not involve use of teeth
  • LONDON RAILWAY Co v BERRIMAN (1946) – ‘relaying and repairing’ does not include maintenance

The traditional approach is known as the literal rule. This was described by the Lord Chancellor of 1951 - Lord Simonds – as, “a duty of the court to interpret the words that the legislature has used… the power and the duty of the court to travel outside them… is strictly limited.” Therefore, the risk of undermining Parliamentary sovereignty is reduced. Zander described the literal rule as “mechanical, divorced from the realities of the use of language.”

3 of 6

The Golden Rule

  • ADLER v GEORGE (1964) – ‘in the vicinity of’ can be read as ‘in’
  • R v ALLEN (1872) – ‘married’ can be read as ‘having gone through a ceremony of marriage
  • Re SIGSWORTH (1935) – a son who had murdered his mother could not benefit from her will

The literal rule may fail to express the intention of Parliament. Therefore, the golden rule developed. This states that where the application of the literal rule leads to a manifest absurdity, the judges should adapt the language of the statute in order to produce a sensible outcome. This approach caters for the need that a circumstance may arise which Parliament failed to see or expect – it is more realistic than the literal rule. However, like the literal rule, the golden rule still prioritises what Parliament said rather than what it may have meant. Very rarely do words only have one possible meaning.

4 of 6

The Mischief Rule

  • HEYDON’S CASE (1584) – established the rule (MUST MENTION)
  • SMITH v HUGHES 1960) – prostitutes loitered on balconies argued innocence bc not on a ‘street’ – guilty
  • ROYAL COLLEGE OF NURSING v DHSS (1981) – technology now allowed that nurses could be included as ‘registered medical practitioners’ and therefore could carry out abortions

Pepper v Hart, Lord Griffiths said that, “The courts now adopt a purposive approach which seeks to give effect to the true purpose of legislation”.

eg R v Smith. The House of Lords considered the CJA 1988 relating to confiscating proceeds of crime. Defendant smuggled cigarettes that were intercepted by Customs. Act stated offence committed if defendant gained ‘pecuniary advantage’ – CoA decided as goods were seized no profit made – therefore no advantage. HoL disagreed; under purposive, intention to gain advantage same as actually gaining. One Lord; function of Customs to intercept such goods - would be absurd to not punish the defendant.

5 of 6

Rules of Language

  1. Esjudem Generis – a word takes its meaning from those around it
  2. Expressio Unius – the inclusion of one term excludes others
  3. Noscitur a Sociis – a word should be interpreted within context
6 of 6


No comments have yet been made

Similar Law resources:

See all Law resources »See all Statutory interpretation resources »