Parliament passes statutes and judges must interpret them in court where there is a dispute or uncertainty over the meaning of a word or phrase in an Act of Parliament. 

There are various reasons why a judge must do this.

  • Law only exists in words and language we use is often complex. 
  • Words are an imperfect means of communication.
  • Words can have more than one meaning (they can be ambiguous).
  • There may be errors or omissions in the statute from when it was drafted. 
  • New developments in society can make the words used in a statute out of date which may not cover a situation.
  • It is difficult to cover every eventuality in an act.


     In Royal College of Nursing v DHSS (1981) The Abortion Act 1967 stated that only registered medical practitioners could carry out abortions. Due to advances in technology, nurses were carrying out abortions. The Royal College of Nursing took a test case to see whether the nurses were legally allowed to carry them out, the court said they could.

     In Brock v DPP (1993) the court had to interpret the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which contained the phrase ‘any dog of the type known as a Pit Bull Terrier’. The court interpreted the word ‘type’ so that it covered Pit Bulls that were not pedigree but had a substantial number of the characteristics of such a dog.










In English law the judges have not been able to agree on how statutes should be interpreted so over the years, four rules have been developed to assist judges in interpreting statutes. 


The LITERAL RULE  was created in the 19th century and requires the judge to give the word or phrase its natural, plain, literal, ordinary or dictionary meaning, even if this appears to be contrary to the intentions of Parliament and makes a nonsense of the law. As Lord Reid said in Pinner v Everett (1969), ‘In determining the meaning of any words or phrases in a statute, the first question to ask is what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute.’ 


     In Whiteley v Chappell (1868) an Act made it illegal to impersonate any person entitled to vote. The defendant had impersonated a dead person and was found not liable as a dead person is not entitled to vote.  


     In LNER v Berrimen (1946) a maintenance man died during work on the railway line when he was hit by a train. The courts used the literal rule and said that maintenance was not ‘repairing’ or ‘relaying’ so no compensation was paid.  

These cases demonstrated that application of the literal rule may lead to unexpected and unfair results that were not intended by Parliament.


There are ADVANTAGES of the literal rule.

Under this rule, parliamentary sovereignty is


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