Statutory Interpretation

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  • Created by: Catherine
  • Created on: 18-04-11 17:50

Statutes are laws passed by Parliament, they require interpreting by the judges because laws can be outdated and language can evolve (eg: Offences Against the Person Act 1861 still contains the relevant law regarding ABH/GBH etc)

Statutory Interpretation is working out the Law and what particular words/phrases in an act mean if unclear

An estimated 75% of Supreme Court cases, and 50% Court of Appeal cases concern statutory interpretation.

Why is Statutory Interpretation Necessary? 

  • Words can have more than one meaning (eg: Jumper)
  • Meaning of words can change over time (eg 'passenger'- Cheeseman)
  • Words often take meaning from context (eg: Vehicle- Twining v Myers)
  • Legislation may have been rushed through Parliament due to public pressure (eg: Firearms Act 1997 following Dunblane Massacre)
  • Technological/Medical advances may not have been foreseeable when act was written (Abortion Act 1967> DHSS v RCN, OAPA 1861> Ireland; Burstow)

Rules of Interpretation 


Literal Rule- Judges give the words their plain and natural dictionary definition.

This can result in absurd verdicts- Whiteley v Chappel - Impersonated a dead man in order to vote, act said 'it is illegal to personate a person entitled to vote' However, a dead person is not entitled to vote, and therefore not guilty. 

It can also result in unfair verdicts- LNER v Berriman - Man was maintaining railroad, however the Fatal Accidents Act said 'reparing/relaying' the lines, therefore Mrs Berriman was not entitled to compensation.

+Encourages precision in drafting

+Respects Parliamentary Sovereignty

+Prevents unelected Judges rewriting the Law

+Provides certainty in the Law

- Assumes drafting is correct, however even the most talented of draftsmen can not predict every outcome (medical advances, technological advances etc)

- Ignores limitations of language(changing words, context, intentions of parliament)

- Prevents Judges looking at a wider context

- Leads to absurd/harsh decisions

Golden Rule- If the words in the act are ambiguous, the court should adopt the meaning which leads to the fairest result.

R v Allen- it was an offence to marry someone whilst already married, however the D argued that by law, the second marriage was void, and therefore he was not guilty. However, through applying the Golden Rule, judges interpreted this as 'going through a ceremony of marriage' 

Adler v George- Charged under s3 Official Secrets Act 1920, 'an offence to obstruct members of Her Majesty's armed forces "in the vicinity" of certain prohibited areas' However the defendant was arrested in the base, not in the vicinity of, using the Golden Rule it was interpreted as ' in or in the vicinity of'.

+Can avoid absurd/harsh results caused by literal rule

+ Gives judges more freedom where Parliament do not have time to amend an unfair Act

- Can only be used in limited circumstances, where the most sensible of two meanings is taken.

-Can lead to unpredictability in the law, as judge may see an absurdity due to a dislike of the law

-Provides no clear meaning of 'absurd result' Michael Zander described it as

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