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Statutory interpretation

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Q. 'During the last 30 years there has been a shift from the literalist approach to purposive methods of construction. When there is no obvious meaning of a statutory provision the modern emphasis is on a contextual approach designed to identify the purpose of a statute and to give effect to it.' Lord Steyn. Discuss. [25 marks] Ans. When the parliament has enacted a statute questions inevitably arise as to the meanings of certain words or phrases. Despite how carefully the parliament counsel has drafted the original bill, some error may have been overlooked. Also, English language is and imperfect means of communication-some words are designed to cover a number of possibilities and are therefore ambiguous and vague. With the development of new technology and changes in the meaning of words over time old acts of parliament may not apply to present situations. It is thus the responsibility of the court to interpret statutes and other legislations. ...read more.


Berriman's case failed. In 1973 the U.K joined the European Union. European law with its roots firmly in 'civilian' law preferred a more purposive approach i.e. is to find out the purpose of the act or the parliaments intention. It is also the approach adopted by the European Court of Justice. The U.K has to therefore interpret statutes in accordance with the European Union and the purposive approach is for that reason regarded as most appropriate. Lord Denning stated in Bulmer V Bollinger (1974) that an English court interpreting any treaty or other European legislation must follow the same principles of the European Court otherwise there would be differences in interpretations between the member countries and that would never do. Also, Section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that legislation must be read in a way which is compatible with the convention's rights 'so far as possible'. It is for these reasons that there has been a shift from the literalist approach to purposive methods of constructions as even local English judges have grown accustomed to the purposive approach and have started applying it to English law. ...read more.


Judges also make use of the rules of language - the ejusdem generis rule (Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse), the noscitur a sociis rule (Muir v Keay) and the expressio unius est exclusio alterius rule (Tempest v Kilner). The ejusdem generis rule states that general words which follow particular words should be limited to meanings similar to those particular words. Thus, in Powell, an outdoor place was held not to fall within the "house, room, office or other place" of the Betting Act 1833. Such rules assist the judge in discovering the intention of Parliament. The attitude of English courts has changed over the 300 years. The choice of which method to be adopted is up to the individual judge. It is quite possible that the judge prefers the literalist approach, which constitutionally maintains the parliaments supremacy enabling it to enact any law it wish. However, there has been a considerable shift towards the purposive approach and today it is generally accepted that the judge's task is to determine and give effect to the parliament's intention. ...read more.

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