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. Although the defendant had carried out the obstruction inside the area, the court did not restrict itself to the literal wording of the Act and found him guilty.

Under the wider approach, the courts can modify the words in order to avoid a problem, for instance, where there is an obvious and clear meaning but this meaning would lead to an absurd result. For instance, in Re Sigsworth (1935) the defendant had murdered his mother. Under the relevant Act of Parliament, the next of kin would inherit the deceased’s estate. Whilst this was clear, the literal rule would produce an unjust result. The golden rule was applied, so that the next of kin would not inherit the estate where they had killed the deceased.

The mischief rule

Sometimes, statutes can be defined more broadly by the courts to deal with unforeseen loopholes or ambiguity within the legislation, which may prevent parliament’s original intention being honoured. This application is known as the mischief rule, and will be used where there is ambiguity.

The mischief rule was laid down in the landmark Heydon’s Case in 1584 where the court said four issues need 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, to give effect to that remedy.

The mischief rule is narrower than the golden rule and only applied to determine the mischief and defect that the statute was intended to remedy.

The judges’ discretion

Judges have the discretion to apply any of these rules of statutory interpretation as they deem appropriate. Each of the rules has its imperfections but it provides judges with the ability to interpret legislation in the best way possible to achieve the result as intended by Parliament when it was enacted.

These rules of statutory interpretation provide a coherent and proven framework for the courts to follow to achieve the best possible outcome of a case in accordance with legislation.

In exercising their discretion, judges can use both intrinsic and extrinsic aids, such as Hansard and other statutes, Law Commission reports, and Royal Commission reports for the purposes of interpreting legislation. This reduces the risk of statutes being interpreted in a way that contradicts other legislation.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.