English Legal System - Statutory Interpretation (Part 1)

The Parliament makes legislation but the Courts are left to interpret and apply it.

The Doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty means that Judges must obey the will of the Parliament.

There may be difficulty in interpreting the exact meaning of words in particular context that the Parliament has drafted because:

- a word is left out in the assumption that it would be automatically implied.
- a broad term is used interpretation of which is for the user to determine.
- an ambiguous wording used purposely.
- printing, drafting or other errors resulting in inadequate wording.
- no consideration given to unforeseeable events of a case coming before the courts at time of drafting the legislation.

The job of the courts is to discover what the intention of the Parliament was in relation of the application of the law.

The Parliament has given the courts some source of guidance as to the interpretation of statutes - The Interpretation Act 1978.

Most modern Acts have an interpretation sections at the end defining some of the words used within them.

Since 1999 all Bills passed must have public explanatory notes which give detail to the background to the legislation as well as what is the effect it is intended to have.

In order to aid courts to resolve the ambiguity of meaning of words the rules of statutory interpretation have developed – Literal Rule, Golden Rule and Mischief Rule.

The Literal Rule

The literal rule is the starting point to a judge in interpreting statutes.

The literal rule means that all the words in a statute must be given their ordinary and natural meaning.

Under this rule the literal meaning of the word must be followed regardless that it may cause an absurd result which the Parliament did not mean, as it is for the courts just to apply to law.

Whitely v Chapell (1868) LR 4 QB 147

Case where under a statute preventing electoral malpractice it was an offence to impersonate ‘any person entitled to vote’, and so the accused was acquitted due to the fact that he impersonated a dead person not entitled to vote.

R v Harris (1836) 7 C & P 446

This case concerned a statute making it a offence to ‘stab, cut or wound’ another person and as Harris bit off her friend’s nose during a fight and police man’s finger, she was not found guilty as teeth were not included in category of weapon to which the statute indicated to apply.

Further cases illustrating the use of literal rule:

London and North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman [1946] AC 278

Case regarding a railway worker being hit and killed by a train while doing routine maintenance work and oiling, and his widow being refused damages as the wording of the statute was that only employees who have been killed while engaging in ‘relaying or repairing’ tracks are entitled to damages. Routine maintenance work and oiling did not fit into this.

Fisher v Bell [1961] 1 QB 394

The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 was introduced to limit the rising number of violent incidences and it contained a wording that it is an offence to ‘sell or offer for sale’ any flick-knife. The defendant had been charged with offering to sale these items as he had displayed them in his shop window and as ‘offer for sale’ should be given its ordinary meaning in law, displaying a knife in a shop window is not an offer to sell, but invitation to treat and the defendant therefore not guilty of a crime under the Act.

Lord Diplock has expressed the following in favour of the literal rule of statutory interpretation:

Duport Steels Ltd v Sirs [1980] 1 W.L.R. 142

“At a time when more and more cases involve the application of legislation which gives effect to policies that are the subject of bitter public and parliamentary controversy, it cannot be too strongly argued that the British constitution, though largely unwritten, is firmly based upon the separation of powers; Parliament makes the laws, the judiciary interpret them. When Parliament legislates to remedy what the majority of its members at the time perceive to be a defect or a lacuna in the existing law (whether it be the written law enacted by existing statutes or the unwritten common law as it has been expounded by the judges in decided cases), the role of the judiciary is confined to ascertaining from the words that the Parliament has approved as expressing its intention what that intention was, and to giving effect to it. Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they themselves consider that the consequences of doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral. In controversial matters such as are involved in industrial relations there is room for differences of opinion as to what is expedient, what is just and what is morally justifiable. Under our constitution it is Parliament’s opinion on these matters that is paramount.”

Lord Diplock has further went on to say that the principle applies even though there is reason to think that the Parliament had foreseen the situation before the court it would have modified the words used.

The literal rule has often been criticised as blindly applied it is against using intelligence in understanding language.

Applying the rule may also be difficult.
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