Statutory Interpretation

What is Statutory Interpretation                                                                                

Statutory interpretation may be required where complexity and uncertainty arises as to “what the section provides” and to whom is “within the provisions”. There are several instances where judges call for statues to be interpreted further; such as “failure of legislation to cover a specific point, a broad term, ambiguity, a drafting error, new developments, and changes in the use of language”.  Ambiguity is often a cause of dispute where a statute can have more than one meaning and therefore can directly affect the outcome of a case dependant on which meaning is used.  Further more, statutes dating back to 18th century utilise words which now have a very different meaning, such was evident in case Cheeseman V. DPP, The Times 2nd Nov 1990 where the meaning of the word “passengers” was crucial to the case. 

What rules apply to Statutory Interpretation

Interpretation of statutes is effectively left to the discretion of the judge, in 1978 Parliament passed the Interpretation Act to set out general rules for courts to interpret acts.  Three rules had been developed accordingly to provide a framework of interpretation.  These rules are; Literal Rule, Golden Rule and the Mischief Rule.  When compared, these rules are unalike so it is down to the discretion of the judge to apply which rule they see fit. 

The Literal Rule and relevant case law

“When the literal rule is applied the words in a statute are given their ordinary and natural meaning”, in other words the legislation is to be read literally and not to be analysed further for different meanings.  This rule does not call for further interpretation of an act and directly honours the intentions of the draftsman who wrote it, as stated by Lord Bramwell “…what is such an absurdity that you are to disregard the plain words of an Act of Parliament” in Hill V. East and West India Dock 1884, however it does not come without its weaknesses as portrayed in the following cases.  In R V. Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Diane Blood was refused the right to be inseminated using her deceased spouse’s sperm.  It was held that the “Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990” clearly states artificial insemination requires the consent of the donor and as the wording in this legislation was unambiguous the judge was bound to applying the literal rule despite his sympathy for Mrs Blood. 

Defects in applying the Literal Rule

In Whiteley V Chappell (1868) the literal rule was applied and again led to an absurd result.  In this case the defendant breached a section making it an “offence to impersonate any person entitled to vote”, however the defendant impersonated a man who had died therefore rendering that person not entitled to vote and the defendant found not guilty.   One of the most relevant cases of applying the literal rule was in Fisher V Bell (1960) where the defendant was found not guilty of offering a knife for sale by advertising it in his shop window. Under the literal meaning of the term ‘to offer’ the defendant was found not guilty as his advertisement was merely “an invitation to treat and not an offer of sale”. 

It is evident the literal rule, when applied in its entirety can produce both absurd and harsh results, this is conveyed well in the Berriman case (1946) where a railway worker was killed doing maintenance work on a line as a result of no look out point.  The judge would not grant Mrs Berimann compensation for her husbands death as the relevant act only stated look out points had to be issued for workers ‘relaying’ or ‘repairing’ the line.  This result is clearly unjust as all workers should receive the same level of safety therefore the manner of work done on the line should not matter. In order to overcome unjust and absurd outcomes the Golden Rule was introduced as a “modification of the literal rule”.

The Golden Rule and relevant case law

The golden rule is where “words are given their literal meaning unless it produces a result which is manifestly absurd”.  The golden rule is effectively used to prevent inconsistency and absurdity when interpreting an act literally; however courts must use the literal rule where a clear meaning of a statute will allow it. Lord Blackburn held “we are to take the whole statute and construe it altogether, giving their words ordinary signification, unless….they produce….an absurdity or inconvenience”. 

The Narrow and Wide approach

There are said to be 2 approaches to this rule, the narrow and wide approach.  Under the Narrow approach the court “can only choose between the possible meanings of a word…” i.e. if one meaning is apparent that one must be adopted.  Under the wider approach the courts are granted the right to “modify the words in order to avoid a problem”, this situation arises where there is an obvious and clear meaning but this meaning would lead to an absurd result. An effective example of this approach is conveyed in case Re Sigsworth (1935) where a son had murdered his mother. Ordinarily under the relevant act the next of kin would inherit the deceased’s estate, this was clearly understood by the wording in the statute however if the literal rule was applied it would lead to an unjust result.  The judge would not allow for a murderer to benefit from his crime thus applied the golden rule and held the next of kin would not inherit the estate “where they had killed the deceased”. 

The Golden rule has been applied in several cases where the literal rule would have produced resulted in absurdity.  In Alder V George (1964) the central issue of the case concerned the understanding of the phrase “in the vicinity of”.  The defendant breached the relevant act which clearly implicates “no person in the vicinity of any prohibited place shall obstruct….any member of Her Majesty’s forces”, the dispute surrounded the fact that the defendant was not “in” the vicinity but “on” the vicinity and therefore could not be found guilty of the misdemeanour.  The obvious intention of Parliament in this legislation was to prevent obstruction to her Majesty’s services, therefore the judge applied the golden rule to ensure the original intention of the draftsman’s was adhered to and prevent an unreasonable result.

Often a situation arises where a statute can be defined more broadly in order to cover up any gaps within the legislation, which may prevent the parliament’s original intention being honoured.  This application is known as the mischief rule.

The Mischief Rule and relevant case law

The mischief rule originated from Haydon’s case where 4 significant points were laid out to be considered when interpreting statutes.  These were to; examine the common law prior to the Act, locate the mischief or defeat in the common law, identify the remedy parliament meant to propose to eliminate the mischief, and finally, give effect to that remedy. 

The judges Discretion is supreme

The mischief rule can be said to be complex as the understanding of the legislation is left to the judge’s discretion, however it would be unfounded to say all judges will understand a statute in the same manner.  Once the court has examined what the intention of parliament was in passing a specific act and “identified the mischief which the statute was seeking to correct” they must then interpret it in a way that covers the gap (mischief).  The latter was conveyed in case Smith V Hughes (1960) where Ms Smith acted contrary to S1(1) of the Streets Offences Act 1959 by soliciting in a street “for the purpose of prostitution”.  The defendant however argued she was not in breach as she was using her own premises to attract attention to passers by and not physically standing in the street.  The judge looked at what the law was intending to remedy and it was held the act’s intentions were to clean up to streets and prevent innocent people being pestered by prostitutes, thus rendering the defendant guilty as charged. 

Lord Denning provided an exemplary understanding of the mischief rule in the case of Magor and St Melons V Newport Corporation (1950).  He held that his purpose was to carry out the intention of parliament by “better filling in the gaps and making sense of the enactment  …by opening it up to destructive analysis”.  However it should be noted the mischief rule is only applied “where the other 2 rules fail to deliver an appropriate result”; this does not mean to say the mischief rule when applied produces an immediate and clear understanding of a statute. 

It is now the case that courts can use both intrinsic and extrinsic aids for interpretation as plainly laid out in Pepper V Hart (1992) which introduced the use of extrinsic aids such as Hansard for interpreting legislation. This reduces the risk of statutes being interpreted by the view of one judge which clearly contradicts the view of another. 

Conclusion of the 3 rules

It would be unqualified to say the rules are without their imperfections, it is clear from the case law under the literal rule that this application can cause absurd and highly unjust results.  As evident under the golden rule, the interpretation of a phrase or words absurdity may not coincide with the views of others and again can directly affect the outcome of a case dependant on the judges own view.  And finally, the mischief rule, although easily applied to statutes to gain a more appropriate outcome, it may not be clear what the original draftsman’s intentions were and thereby interferes with exactly what the enactment was set to remedy. 

It would be unwise to consider the three significant rules to be 100% consistent, however in spite of their minor imperfections; the rules provide a coherent and continuous framework for courts to work from when interpreting statutes to achieve the best possible outcome of a case.