Statutory Interpretation

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What is it?

The methods used by judges when interpreting a word or phrase in a statute. 

Must be done as the words of a statute are often difficult to interpret.When this happens, it is the job of judges, rather than parliament, to interpret the correct meaning; a process known as statutory interpretation.

Ways to tackle interpretation:

  • Approaches to interpretation
  • Rules of language
  • Presumptions
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic aids
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Literal Rule

Consists of giving words their plain, ordinary and grammatical meaning, even if it leads to a ridiculous outcome. Lord Esher said in R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892), "if the words of an Act are clear then you must follow them even though they lead to a manifest absurdity. The court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity. 

If the meaning is plain, the rule can operate simply and effectively. See R v Bentham (2005)

However, although this rule respects the doctrine of Seperation of Powers, it can produce harsh, unjust, unrealistic and absurd outcomes.

See also: Cheesman v DPP (1990); London & North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman (1946); Whitely v Chappell (1868). 

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Golden Rule

There are two approaches to the rule: the narrow approach and the wider approach

The narrow approach is used when the words of a statute are ambiguous and it is difficult to see which meaning is appropriate, and in this situation the court may choose between them to achieve a sensible outcome.

See R v Allen (1872); Adler v George (1964)

The wider approach is used when words have only one meaning but to give them that meaning would be wholly unacceptable, with the rule in this situation allowing the court to ignore the plain meaning of the words to avoid an unacceptable outcome.

See Re Sigsworth (1935)

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Mischief Rule

Originates from Heydon’s Case (1584) and involves and examination of the problem with the common law that existed before the statute was passed in an attempt to work out parliament’s intention. The Court then gives effect to that intention.

The original case sets out four parts to the rule; must consider:

·         The common law before the Act was made

·         The “mischief” that the common law did not provide for

·         The remedy proposed by parliament

·         The true reason for that remedy

The rule has been re-stated in three parts in Jones v Wrotham Park Settled Estates (1980):

  • Must be possible to determine precisely the mischief that the Act was intended to remedy.
  • Must be apparent that parliament had failed to deal with the mischief.
  • Must be possible to state the additional words that would have been inserted had the omission been drawn to Parliament's attention.
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Purposive Approach

The purposive approach goes beyond the mischief rule in that the court is not just looking to see what the gap was in the old law; the judges are deciding what they believe parliament meant to acheive. It looks to the spirit rather than the letter of the law and tries to give effect to the wider purpose of the law. 

Originates from the case of Carter v Bradbeer (1975), where it refers to the trend of a move away from the literal meaning of the law towards the purposive construction of statutory provisions.

It is a method used to interpret European Law.

See Jones v Tower Boot Company (1997); R v Registrar-General, ex parte Smith (1990).


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Rules of Language

Number of lesser known rules that tend to analyse the meaning of a word based on the context.

Expressio unius exclusio alterius (expressio rule) - means "the mention of one thing excludes others" and refers to situations where there is a list of words which is not followed by general words. In these situations, the Act would apply only to those items in the list. See Tempest v Kilner (1846)

Ejusdem generis - means "of the same kind" and applies in situations where there is a list of words followed by general words, in which case the general words would be limited to the same kind of items as the specific words. See Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse (1899).

Noscitur a sociis -  means "a word is known by the company it keeps" and effectively means words must be looked at in context and interpreted accordingly. It invloves looking at other words in the same section or at other sections in the Act. Sometimes called the context rule. See Pengelly v Bell Punch Co LTD (1964)

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There are presumptions such as:

  • Mens rea is required in criminal offences - meaning "malice of forethought" or "guilty mind"
  • The Crown is not bound unless the Act specifically states so - however modern tendency is to impose more and more liability upon the Crown/Government, although Crown is still exempt from any statutory provisions. See Sweet v Parsley (1970)
  • Against ousting the jurisdiction of the courts - people cannot choose to exclude their rights to appear before the courts. EG. if a rulebook states "the decision of (whoever) is final", they cna still be challenged in court. See Sagnata Investments Ltd v Norwich Corporation (1971)
  • Parliament does not intend to deprive a person of their liberty - if they do intend to do so, they must express this explicitly in the statute. See Khawaja (1983)
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Intrinsic Aids

Found in the Acts themselves and can help make the meaning clearer.

They can consist of the following:

  • The long title
  • The short title
  • The preamble (paragraph explaining the reasons for the statute and the objectives it seeks to attain)
  • Headings and marginal notes
  • Schedules (additional document including details that would detract from the overall sense of the provision, or that lists the other enactments affected by the Act it is attached to)
  • Interpretation section - setting out the meanings intended for certain words used elsewhere in the Act - a relevant modern drafting technique.
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Extrinsic Aids


  • Dictionaries - used to fdefine the plain meaning of a word, therefore useful for literal rule - see DPP v Cheeseman (1990)
  • Previous similar Acts
  • Historical setting of Acts - see RCN v DHSS (1981)
  • Law Commission reports
  • Legal texts - see Dunlop v Selfridge (1915)
  • Case law
  • Human Rights Act 1998

Hansard - the official report of what's said during debates in Parliament when a bill is passed:

  • Traditional view that judges should not refer to Hansard when interpreting a statute as it may lead to bias - affirmed in Davis v Johnson (1979) when judge was warned for doing so.
  • However, in Pepper v Hart (1992) the House of Lords allowed reference to Hansard
  • May only be considered if the words of the Act are ambiguous etc.
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Interpretation Act and EU

Interpretation Act (1978) is of limited assistance, reminding judges of some generic rules such as:

  • Words in singular include the plural (and vice versa)
  • Words in male gender include the female (and vice versa)
  • All times are in GMT or British Summer Time

Membership of the EU:

  • Now clear that where a judge is interpreting national law that conflicts with EU law, they must interpret in accordance with the EU law.

S3 of Human Rights Act 1988:

  • Statutes must be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights
  • If not possible then judge must make S4 'declaration of incompatibility' and Parliament must amend the law.
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