AQA Law AS - Statutory Interpretation

For AQA law AS students - includes key terms checklist, description of all elements within the unit, cases with brief descriptions and exam tips.

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AQA AS Law - Statutory Interpretation

Key terms checklist, specification, explanations, cases, exam tips

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Key Terms Checklist

  • Ejusdem Generis rule
  • Extrinsic aids
  • Golden rule
  • Interpretation Act 1978
  • Intrinsic aids
  • Literal rule
  • Mischief rule
  • Pepper v Hart (1993)
  • Purposive approach
  • Statuatory Interpretation
  • Noscitur A Sociis
  • Expressio unius est exclusio alterius
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Specification - what they expect of you

Common Law approaches to interpretation: literal approach; golden and mischief rules; purposive approach.

Aids to interpretation: rules of language; internal and external aids

Advantages and disadvantagesof the different approaches and aids to statutory interpretation.             

- Law specification for AS                                                        

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What is Statuatory Interpretation?

Statutory Interpretation is the process by which judges have to decide the meanings of words or phrases in legislation.

There are many reasons meanings may be unclear:

  • A broad term - words may cover many possibilities
  • Ambiguity - words may have more than one meaning
  • Drafting error - mistakes that make meanings unclear
  • New developments- new technology may mean an old Act no longer covers a situation
  • Changes in the use of language - meanings of words change over time


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Literal Approach

The literal rule involves giving words their ordinary, plain, grammatical meaning. Some judges take the view that, where the words in an Act of Parliament are clear, they must follow them as this is what has been enacted by Parliament.

Advantages- maintains separation of powers, maintains Parliamentary sovereignty, encourages precision in drafting, gives certainty to results.

Disadvantages- assumes drafting is correct, can lead to absurd results, is not what Parliament always intended (Parliament may have left it open to interpretation as covering all possible eventualities would have been impossible)

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Golden Rule

Narrow approach - used where there are two or more meanings - the court will take the least absurd.

Wider approach - Where the literal rule would lead to absurd result the court will 'modify' the words of the Act in order to avoid such a result.

Advantages - Allows judges to avoid absurd results, allows more freedom for interpretation into what Parliament would have wanted.

Disadvantages - does not maintain the idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty (only Parliament can make or change law), no clear defenititon into what amounts to an absurd result.

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Mischief Rule

Allows judges to look beyond the words of the Act which are in dispute and try to discover why the law was passed. It originates from Heydon's case (1584) which said the judge should:

  • Look to see what the gap in the law was which the Act intended to remedy.
  • Consider what remedy was intended to put the gap or 'mischief' right
  • Interpret the law so as to remedy the 'mischief'

Advantages - Gives effect to the original intentions of Parliament (flexibility), avoids abdurd results.

Disadvantages - Gives scope for judicial law making as it allows judges to decide what they think Parliament was trying to put right (this could be seen as an advantage)

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Purposive approach

The mischief rule involves looking back to the common law position before the Act was passed. The purposive approach places the emphasis on what parliament intended when passing new law. It is the opposite of the literal rule and a modern version of the mischief approach - the definition is almost the exact same.

It is used largely in interpreting EU law which is left in broad terms. Instead of arguing over the grammatical sense, they look at the purpose or intent.

Advantages and disadvantages are the same as the mischief rule.

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Aids to interpretation - Intrinsic aids

Matters within the statute itself which help to make certain words or phrases clearer. The main aids are:

  • Long and short title (may briefly say intentions)
  • Preamble (explains purpose of the Act)
  • Sections which explain the purpose of the Act
  • Sections which contain definitions of words/phrases
  • Schedules attached to the Act


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Aids to interpretation - Extrinsic aids

Sources outside the statute itself which may help to make certain words or phrases clearer. The main aids are:

  • Previous Acts on the same topic
  • The historical setting
  • Case law
  • Dictionaries of the time

Other aids consulted in limted circumstances are:

  • Hansard
  • Reports of law reform bodies (e.g. Law Commission)
  • International conventions or directives which the English law is tyring to impliment
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The rules of language - Ejusdem Generis

Means 'of the same kind'. Where general words follow a list of specific words or phrases, he general ones are taken only to include things of the same kind as the specific ones.

Advantages - No requirement for draftsmen to write an exhaustive list of everything that is included. Act can cover circumstances that have not been considered.

Disadvantages- Not always predictable what judges will consider to be of the same category as the specific words. It also allows for judicial law making which is not desirable as the role of the judiciary (according to separation of powers) is only to apply the law.

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The rules of language - Expressio unius est exclus

Means 'the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of another'. Where specific matters are only mentioned, then it is assumed that all other matters are not included.

Advantages - A finite list is provided which makes the outcome of cases more predictable. Lawyers can advise whether to take legal action and their chances of success. It respects separation of powers as judges only apply the law.

Disadvantages- Rigidity which does not allows the Act to cover a new or novel situation which the draftsmen may have intended the Act to cover had they foreseen it - unfair and unjust outcomes as a result.

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The rules of language - Noscitur a sociis

Means 'known by the company it keeps'. Surrounding words and phrases have to be considered in deciding what a particular word or phrase means.

Advantages - No requirement for draftsmen to write an exhaustive list of everything that is included. Act can cover circumstances that have not been considered.

Disadvantages - Outcomes for cases are unpredictable because of the scope for judicial discretion.

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Literal Rule - Whitely v Chappel (1868): The defendant was charged under a law which made it an offence to impersonate 'any person entitled to vote'. The defendant pretended to be a person who had died but whose name was still on the list of voters. The court found the defendant not guilty of the offence, as the literal meaning of the words 'any person entitled to vote' did not include someone who was dead as they were no longer entitled to vote.

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Golden Rule (narrow) - Allen (1872): the narrow approach of the golden rule was used by the judge to make sense of the law.

Golden Rule (wide) - Alder v George (1964): The defendants were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act 1920 which made it an offence to obstruct HM forces 'in the vicinity of' a prohibited place. The defendant obstructed HM Forces actually IN the prohibited place. The strict use of the literal rule would have meant that they were not guilty because they were 'in' rather than 'in the vicinity of'. This was absurd, and the court used the golden rule to find them guilty.

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Mischief Rule - Smith v Hughes (1960): The Street Offences Act 1959 made it an offence for a 'prostitute to loiteror solicit in the street or public place for the purpose of prostitution'. Prostitutes who were soliciting by attracting attention of men in the street from the windows or balcony of a house were held to be guilty of the offence even though they were in a house and not 'in a street or public place'. The judge said the Act had been passed to protect the public from being solicited by prostitutes and as the public in the street were being solicited it did not matter that the prostitutes were in a house.

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Purposive approach/Hansard - Pepper v Hart (1993): Not only was the purposive approach used in this case, but it was also the case in which Hansard was first allowed to be consulted in order to aid in giving meaning to words and phrases. Hansard could only be consulted if the legilation is ambiguous, obscure or leads to an absurdity, only statements by the promoter of the Bill can be consulted, and those statements have to be clear.  

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  • Dont waffle - be to the point and remember what the question is asking you.
  • Read the specification - it says what the examiners want you to learn so learn it!
  • Learn cases and refer to them - this gives you a higher level of application.
  • Look for command words like argue or describe - they give a clue in how to structure your answer.
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Again, really good set of cards - keep up the good work!

Anamaria Drago

I changed a few things as I copied this on my revision cards, but over all, is really useful. Thank you.

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