Statutory Interpretation - The Literal Rule

The Literal Rule

Requires judges to give the word or phrase its ordinary, natural or dictionary meaning, even if it appears to be contrary to the intentions of Parliament.

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The Literal Rule

Lord Reid in Pinner v Everett (1969)

"In determining the meaning of any word or phrase in a statute, the first question to ask is always what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute."

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Application of Literal Rule

Absurd Result -

Fisher v Bell (1961)

The defendant displayed flick knives in his shop window. He was charged under The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959. The Act made it an offence to 'sell or offer for sale' an offensive weapon. In contract law the display of goods in a shop window is not an offer for sale but an invitation to treat; the display of goods thus inites the customer to make an offer to buy the goods. The court found the defendant not guilty despite the obvious aim of the Act being to prevent such behaviour.

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Application of Literal Rule

Absurd Result -

Whiteley v Chappell (1868)

An Act made it an offence to impersonate "any person entitled to vote at an election". The defendant attempted to vote in the name of a deceased person, but the court held no offence had been committed because when 'any person entitled to vote' is interpretated literally, it does not include dead people.

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The Literal Rule (Disadantages)

  • Based on false foundation that ordinary words have plain, ordinary meanings. Dictionaries normally have more than one meaning for one word. The rule makes too little allowance for the natural ambiguties of language.
  • Allow absurd results to be reached e.g. R v Reynolds (1981) - S.17 of the Juries Act (1974) requires that the number voting for and against coniction should be seated. The jury foreman announced that the coniction was agreed to be 10 of the jury. The Court of Appeal quashed the conviction because the foreman failed to say that 2 had disagreed.
  • Produces unjust results e.g. LINER v Berriman (1946) an Act replaced railway companies under a duty to provide a look-out man whenever a railwayman was 'repairing oe relyaing' the track. Mr Berriman's job was to top up the oil which lubricated the points on the line. His employer, a railway company, did not provide him with a look-out man or any other warning system and Mr Berriman was killed by a train. Mr Berriman's widow claimed compensation, but was unsuccessful. The courts applied the literal rule and the words 'repairing and relaying' did not cover oiling points since this was merely maintaining the line.
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The Literal Rule (Disadantages)

  • The rule cannot be said to always gie effect to the intention of Parliament, as Parliament would not intend the Act to produce absurd or unjust results.
  • Where there is more than one possible dictionary definition of a word the literal rule alone cannot provide the solution. Another interpretation rule or aid is required.
  • Application of the literal rule requires the assumption that the parliamentary draftsmen will always do their job perfectly. This is virtually impossible as not only will they sometimes be careless as is human nature, but language has its limitations. In its Report on The Interpretation of Statutes (1969), the Law Commission said:

"To place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of the words of a proision is to assume an unattainable perfection in draftsmenship ... ignores the limitations of language, which is not infrequently demonstrated even at the level of the House of Lords when Law Lords differ as to the so-called 'plain meaning' of words.

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The Literal Rule (Advantages)

  • Under this rule parliamentary soereignity is respected, that is, the principle that Parliament is the supreme law-maker. Judges are gien a restricted role. They must keep to the constitutional position of applying the law as set by Parliament.
  • Law-making is left to those elected (MPs)
  • Application of the literal rule can highlight to Parliament the problems with an Act and then Parliament can amend the legislation. Literal interpretation in Fisher v Bell (1961) and Partridge v Crittenden (1968) prompted Parliament to amend the law so that invitations to treat are treated the same way as offers for sale.
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The Literal Rule (Advantages)

It is not the job of the judges to make laws, that is the job of Parliament and judges who use the literal rule don't stray into law-making. They ask the right question which is; what does the Act mean? And the most reliable guide to the meaning is the literal, everyday meaning of the words in question.

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