Statutory Interpretation

An introduction to statutory interpretation?

Statutes of law, also known as legislation, are the written laws of the United Kingdom. They are created and implement by Parliament, and enforced by various authorities, prosecuting bodies, and so on.

Interpreting the meaning of legislation is not always straightforward and, in some cases, the judges are called upon to interpret the legislation in accordance with existing law and rules of ‘statutory interpretation’.

What is statutory interpretation?

Statutory interpretation may be required where complexity and uncertainty arises as to how the law applies in a given situation. Those who draft legislation do their utmost within their extraordinary experience and drafting skills to craft legislation that is clear and unambiguous. However, sometimes the written law is not always clear.

Typical problems include a failure within legislation to cover a specific point; ambiguity as to its meaning; drafting errors; new legal developments; and changes in the use of language. Some statutes date back to the 18th century and use words which now have a very different meaning today.

What are the rules of statutory interpretation?

Statutory interpretation is effectively a matter for the courts. Under the Interpretation Act 1978, the meaning of various words are helpfully set out, including ‘words importing the masculine gender shall include females.

Over time, a number of rules of statutory interpretation have been developed, providing an important framework for interpretation. These are known as the Literal Rule, the Golden Rule and the Mischief Rule.

The literal rule

Under the literal rule, the words in a statute are given their ordinary and natural meaning. They will be read literally and do not need to be analysed further for different meanings, disregarding the plain words of the legislation.

An example of a plain reading resulting in a harsh result is the Berriman case (1946) where a railway worker was killed while doing some ‘oiling’ on a railway line as a result of there being no ‘look out’ point. The judge would not grant Mrs Berriman compensation for her husband’s death as the relevant Act only stated that look out points had to be issued for workers ‘relaying’ or ‘repairing’ the line. Oiling did not come within either of the two categories. This result was clearly harsh and unjust.

To overcome such outcomes, the Golden Rule was introduced to modify the literal rule.

The golden rule

The golden rule is used to prevent inconsistency and absurdity when interpreting an Act literally. It can be applied narrowly or widely. Under the narrow approach, the court “can only choose between the possible meanings of a word…”, ie. if one meaning is apparent that meaning must be adopted. In Adler v George (1964), the defendant was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1920, with obstruction “in the vicinity” of a prohibited area.

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For more information on:

  • The mischief rule
  • The judges’ discretion