Statutory Interpretation - 4 Rules of Statutory Law

The 4 Rules of Statutory Law
includes definitions, cases, advantages and disadvantages. 

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  • Created by: Shahnee
  • Created on: 20-11-13 05:31

Literal Rule

Judges apply the natural, ordinary, dictionary meaning of the words in the statute.


  • London & North Eastern Railway v Berriman [1946]  - compensation payable on death for those "relaying or repairing" the track.
  • Fisher v Bell [1960] - The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 - offence to sell flick knives or offer them for sale
  • Whiteley v Chappell [1868] - offence to "impersonate any person entitled to vote at an election"

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Literal Rule - Advantages and disadvantages


  • Uncontroversial & follows Parliamentary Supremacy - judges simply apply the law which Parliament makes.
  • Certainty - People know where they stand as wording will not change.
  • Quick decisions - meaning of the words can be found in the dictionary.


  • Ambiguous meanings - Dictionaries can give several meanings.
  • Absurdity - Can lead to unjust, unfair or absurd decisions.
  • Restricts judicial creativity and holds back development of Law.
  • Carelessly drafted - Statute may have been drafted arelessly, especially where certain words in isolation can have several meanings. 
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Golden Rule

The golden rule is used if the literal rule produces an absurdity, therefore the court should look for another meaning of the words that avoids the absurd result.

Narrow Approach - This is where a word in the statute has more than one meaning and leads the judge to select the meaning which avoids absurdity.

Wide Approach - This is where the words in the statute have one meaning however to interpret them as such would cause injustuce or absurdity, which is contrary to the intentions of Parliament.


  • R v Allen [1872] - Offence Against the Person Act 1861 - Bigamy is an offence
  • Adler v George [1964] - Official Secrets Act 1920 - offence to obstruct an officer "in the vicinity of a prohibited place"
  • Re Sigworth [1935] - The Administrations of Estates Act 1925 - distributes of the property of an interstate amongst next of kin
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Golden Rule - Advantages and disadvantages


  • It respects Parliamentary Sovereignty as it only is used in limited situations.
  • Upholds the true intention of Parliament.
  • Flexibiity - Judges can avoid absurd results and this leads to justice in individual cases.
  • Prevents absurdity and injustice caused by the literal rule.


  • Judges could only use common sense and not look at what Parliament intended.
  • Depends on what a judges views as absurd.
  • No clear guidelines on when it should be used.
  • Doesn't describe characteristics of absurdity, inconsistency or inconvenience, or measure their quality or extent.
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Mischief Rule

The judge looks at the reason for the Act and what the problem or 'mischief' the law was intended to remedy. Established in Heydon's Case [1584]. When applying mischief rule, court must consider:

  • What was the common law before making the Act?
  • What was teh mischief and defect for which the common law didn't provide?
  • What was the remedy Parliament passed to cure the mischief?


  • Smith v Hughes [1960] - The Street Offences Act 1959 - offence to "solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution"
  • Royal College of Nursing v DHSS [1981] - The Abortion Act 1967 - abotions had to be done by a "registered medical practitioner"
  • Elliot v Grey [1960] - The Road Traffic Act 1930 - offence to use an uninsured vehicle
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Mischief Rule - Advantages and disadvantages


  • Gives effect to the true intention of Parliament.
  • Looking at words only is inadequate. Judges ecamine what the statute was passed to prevent.
  • Judges interpret Act in light of changing social, economical and technological circumstances.
  • Law Commission in 1969 said Mischief Rule is a 'rather more satisfactory approach'


  • At the time of Heydon's Case statutes started by explaining why they have been written and they were written by judges.
  • Goes against parliamentary supremacy as judges are effectively rewriting statutes.
  • Finding the intention isn't always easy.
  • Judges may use their own views o how the law should remedy a mischief.
  • Rule can lead to uncertainty. Therefre difficult for lawyers to advise clients.
  • Can change the meaning of what an Act says.
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Purposive Approach

The judge looks at the purpose for the Act and looks at what Parliament would want to happen in the current situation. Used since joining the EU as this is used in the rest of Europe.


  • Wallwork v Giles - "a police officer in uniform"
  • R v Registrar General, ex parte Smith - The Adoption Act 1976 - "entitled to see a copy of birth certificate"
  • Jones v Tower Boot Co. [1997] - The Race Relations Act - employes responsible for racial harassment "in the course of employment)
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Purposive Approach - Advantages and disadvantages


  • Looks at whole Act.
  • Wider approach than all other rules therefore covers more situations.
  • Lord Denning "it's not for judges to pull apart the language of Parliament."
  • Blackstone "fairest and most rational method to interpret"
  • Fits in with EU/Europe



  • More power to judges
  • Lord Scarman "We are to be governed not by Parliament's intentions but by Parliament's enactments."
  • People argue that judges should only apply the law
  • Difficult to know the purpose/intentions
  • Judges could change the meaning of the Act and cause uncertainty and confusion
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Smith E

The real strength in this revision resource are the cases, many of which are not found in the core texts. This is good material to revise from.

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