Law Statutory Interpretation



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The need for statutory interpretation

Many cases come to court because of dispute over meaning of Act of Parliament. Courts job is to decide exact meaning of word or phrase. Many reasons why meaning may be unclear:

  • Broad term- May be words to cover several possibilities. Can lead to problems as to how wide this should go. Eg in Dangerous Dogs Act. Phrase was "any dog of type known as pit bull terrier" What does type mean? Does it mean same as breed?
  • Ambiguity- Where word has 2 or more meanings, makes it unclear which meaning to use.
  • Drafting error- Parliamentary Counsel who drafted Bill may have made error Parliament may have not noticed. Most likely to occur when there are several amendments being made when going through Parliament.
  • New developments- New technology may mean old Act does not cover present day situation. Case of Royal College of Nursing v DHSS where medical science had changed since passing of Abortion Act.
  • Changes in use of language- meaning of word may have changed over time. Problem in case of Cheeseman v DPP.
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3 main rules of interpretation


Court gives word plain, literal meaning even if result is not sensible. Idea expressed by Lord Esher in R v Judge of the City of London Court. He said if words of Act are clear you should follow them. The court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity.

Literal rule still used as starting point for interpreting.


Whiteley v Chappel. Defendant charged under Act that made it offence to impersonate someone who was entitled to vote. Defendant impersonated a dead person. Under literal rule, defendant found not guilty as dead person does not have right to vote.

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The Literal Rule


  • Follows Parliaments word. They are our law making body and its right that judges should apply the law exactly as its written. Using literal rule means unelected judges do not make law.
  • Also makes law certain as it should be interpretative exactly as written.


  • Acts may be poorly drafted or not cover every situation.
  • Words may have more than 1 meaning, so Act is unclear.
  • Unfair decisions may result.
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The Golden Rule

Golden rule is modification of literal rule.

Used if literal rule produces unfair result, the court can alter meaninig of words to avoid harsh result.

This rule can be used in 2 types of cases:

  • Narrow approach
  • Broad approach


Where words of statute are ambiguous and its hard to see which meaning is appropriate. 

Under narrow approach the court may only choose between possible meanings of word or phrases.


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The Golden Rule


Wider application of Golden Rule

Where words have only 1 meaning but to give them that meaning would create unjust result.

Court will use golden rule to modify words of statute to avoid the problem.

Shown in case of Re Sigsworth- Son murdered his mother. She had not made will so he would inherit the estate under Administration of Justice Act. This is an unjust result. Court used Golden Rule so that he would not inherit.

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Advantages and disadvantages of Golden Rule


  • Allows judge to avoid absurd result.
  • Provides escape route from applying literal rule.


  • Limited in use so it can only be used on rare occasions.
  • Not always possible to predict when courts will use it.


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The Mischief Rule

Gives judge more discretion than the other 2 rules.

Definition of rule comes from Heydon's case where it ssaid 4 points should be considered:

1. What was the case law before new Act was passed?

2. What was the problem with the common law that meant an Act needed to be passed?

3. What remedy for existing problem did Parliament decide to put in place.

4.Court is to look at why the Act was passed and try to ensure Parliaments intention is fullfilled.

So court should look to see what the law was before Act was passed to see what mischief the Act intended to cover. Court should then interpret Act in a way that the mischief is covered.

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The Mischief Rule


Smith v Hughes- defendant charged with soliciting in street or public place for the purpose of prostitution contrary to Street Offences Act. They were doing this from upstairs window. Lord Parker used the Mischief Rule to convict as he thought that the mischief Parliament had intended to stop was people in the street being bothered by prostitutes.


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Advantages and disadvantages of Mischief Rule


  • Promotes purpose of the law as it lets judges look back at gap in law which Act was designed to cover.
  • More  likely to lead to fair result


  • Risk of judicial law making as they fill in gap with their own views.
  • Impossible to know when judges will use the rule and what result it may lead to. Hard for lawyer to advise clients.
  • Not as wide as purposive approach as it only looks at mischief Parliament were trying to remedy.
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The Purposive Approach

Goes beyond the mischief rule in that the court are not just looking to see what the gap was in old law. Judges are deciding what they believe Parliament to achieve.

Lord Denning greatly in favour of this rule. He said they are there to find intention of Parliament and carry it out and they can do this by filling in gaps and making sense of the Act.

Lord Simonds greatly against this rule. He thinks that if there is a gap in the Act then it should be fixed by amending the Act.

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Cases using Purposive Approach

Rule used in R v Registrar General ex parte Smith:

Section 51 of Adoption Act allowe adopted person to obtain their birth certificate at age 18 as long as they agreed to counselling. Mr Smith applied but he was a psychotic murderer and was felt that he may be hostile towards birth mother. Court of Appeal applied purposive approach and said Parliament would not have intended to promote serious crime. He was denied access.



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Advantages and disadvantages to purposive approach


  • Leads to justice in individual cases
  • Broad approach which allows law to cover more situations than applying words literally.
  • Useful when there is new technology which was unknown when law was created.


  • Makes law less certain. Hard to know when judge will use.
  • Allows unelected judges to make law as they decide what they think law should be rather than using exact words of Parliament.
  • Difficult to discover intention of Parliament
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Finding Parliaments intention

4 ways to find Parliaments intention:

1. Intrinsic aids

2. Extrinsic aids

3. Presumptions

4. Rules of Language


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Intrinsic Aids

Within statute itself.

Can look at long title, short title and the preamble. Old statues preabmles which set out Parliaments purpose. Long title may breifly explain parliaments intentions.

Other useful internal aids are headings before group of sections or schedules attached to the Act.

Oftern marginal nots explaining different sections but not regarded as giving parliaments intentions as they have been inserted after debates and are only helpful comments.


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Extrinsic Aids

Are outside the Act.

  • Dictionaries of the time
  • Historical setting- judge can consider historical setting of the Act
  • Previous Acts on same topic
  • Earlier case law
  • Hansard- official report of what was said in Parliament when Act was being debated
  • Reports of law commission and other law reform bodies- Could not use until rule was relaxed in Black Clawson case.
  • International treaties- assumed Parliament will not legislate in clear breach of a treaty.
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Extrinsic Aids


Until 1992, strict rule saying courts could not look at Hansard.

In Pepper v Hart House of Lords relaxed the rule and accepted hansard could be used but in limited way.

Hansard may be considered but only where words of Act are ambiguous or obscure or lead to absurdity.

Even then, should on be used if there was clear statement by Minister introducing legislation which would resolve the ambiguity or absurdity. 

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When interpreting Act, court can make certain presumptions. It is presumed that:

1.It is assumed that the common law will apply unless Parliament made it plain in Act that common law has been altered.

2. Presumed Mens Rea is required in criminal cases (intention to commit)

3. Presumption that the Crown is not bound by any statute unless statute says so.

4.Presumption legislation does not apply retrospectively.


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Rules of Language

These are rules that court has developed to help make meaning of words of phrases clear where particular sentence construction has been used.

The 3 rules are:

1. the ejusdem generis rule

2. the express mention of 1 thing excludes others

3. a word is known by the company it keeps


Where there is list of words followed by general words, then general words a limited to same kind of items as specific words eg cats, dogs and other animals. Other animals would include domestic pets.

Case of Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse. Defendant charged with keeping "house, office, room or other place for betting". "Other place" must refer to indoor place. Defendant was taking bets outdoors so no guilty.

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Rules of Language


Where there is list of words which is not followed by general words, then the Act applies only to items in list. i.e if Act refers to "Persian cats" it would not inculde other breeds of cats.

Case of Tempest v Kilner: Reference in Act to "goods, wares and merchandise" was not followed by general words so did not include stocks and shares as they were not specifically mentioned.


Words must be looked at in context and interpreted accordingly.

Case of Inland Revenue Commissioners v Frere. Section of Act set out rules for "interest, annuities and other annual interest". Court held words "annual interest" meant only interest paid annually affected by Act.


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The effect of EU Law

European Court of Justice approach to interpreting law is a purposive one and therefore this approach must be used in cases involving EU law.

Also the fact that judges have to use purposive approach for EU law means they become more used to it and therefore more likely to apply it in English law.

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The effect of Human Rights Act 1998

Acts must be read and given effect by courts in way that is compatible with European Convention on Human Rights.

If High Court, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court make a decleration of incompatibility that an Act is incompatible with ECHR then Parliament have to decide if law should be changed or replaced.

Case of Mendoza v Ghaidan. Rent Act says partners in married and unmarried relationships were allowed to take over tenancy agreement if their spouse died.

Prioer to Human Rights Act, House of Lords ruled this did not apply to same sex partners.

In Mendoza case, Court of Appeal held rent Act must be interpreted so it did not discriminate on grounds of gender- gave same sex partners equal rights.

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