Statutory Interpretation

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  • Created by: Sarah
  • Created on: 07-12-10 18:55

Statutory Interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation. 

  • 75% of cases at the Supreme Court are disputes about the meaning of an Act. 
  • Things are not always clear and judges must interpret these to fit the case they face
  • Ambiguity is a big problem. 
  • Draftsmen draft Bills and they are required to be as clear a possible because this could affect a case, as seen above. 


The law is made by Parliament and judges are hired to apply the law that they make - 'separation of powers'. 

An Act will start off as a Bill (a draft law) and it will become an Act if it is approved by a majority in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and formally agreed by the reigning monarch (a.k.a Royal Assent). The Act will then be enforced in all areas of the UK where it is applicable. 

Why do we need the rules of interpretation?

When Acts are drafted by Parliament they must make their intentions as clear as possible, however, despite their best efforts:

  • Some statutes may be ambiguous in words or provisions, or a drafting error may not have been picked up.
  • Some broad terms may have also been used to see that a large group of things are included in the statute, e.g. vehicles - does this include bicycles?
  •  There may have also been advances in society since the Act was written, e.g. advances in medical technology.
  • There may have also been changes in vocabulary (words/language) since the Act was written - the law is centuries old.

Regardless, Judges must put into practice what they think Parliament intended when they created the statute. Once they have interpreted an Act and applied it to a case, it becomes a precedent.

The Rules of Interpretation

The Literal Rule

The literal rule means that the judges must apply the natural, ordinary, dictionary meaning.

In R v Judge of the City of London (1892), Lord Esher said:

'If the words of an Act are clear then you must follow them even though they lead to manifest absurdity.'


LNER v Berriman (1946)

A railwayman was killed by a train while oiling signalling apparatus on the line. His widow attempted to claim compensation but was unsuccessful because the literal rule was followed. The statute stated that compensation was only allowed when the deceased was 'relaying or repairing the track' and not maintaining it - therefore the widow received nothing.

Whiteley v Chappell (1868)

The Act stated that it is an offence to impersonate someone who is entitled to vote, however, in this case, the defendant impersonated a dead person, and because dead people are not entitled to vote, the defendant was aquitted.


  • The use of the literal rule means that Judges keep to their constitutional role of applying the law while parliamentary sovereignty is respected (the principle that Parliament is the supreme law-maker).
  • The use of the literal rule is democratic - law-making is left to those elected for…


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