Statutory Interpretation

Authors Avatar

Statutory Interpretation

Mehzeb Rahman Chowdhury

The basis of English law is unwritten. It was developed by the judges over the centuries and historically, customs are believed to have been very important in forming the basis of English law. This eventually evolved into what is known as common law today. However, Parliamentary law is sovereign over the all other forms of law in England and Wales. By this we mean that an Act of Parliament can completely supersede any custom, judicial precedent, delegated legislation or previous Act of Parliament. The only exception to this is European Community legislation, which effectively overrides the powers of the domestic legislative bodies.

The courts of England can question the validity of delegated legislation using the judicial review procedure, although it must be noted that courts cannot challenge an Act of Parliament. Both statutes and delegated legislation have to be interpreted by the courts, as even the simplest statement may be capable of bearing different meanings. However, even with the assistance of provisions such as the Interpretation Act 1978, the courts still had to develop approaches to interpretation. These include the three main cannons of construction, which tend to be referred to as the three main rules of interpretation.

Sir Rupert Cross held that there are was an unified approach to interpretation and that the various rules should not be considered in isolation. Under this, the judge should start by considering the grammatical and ordinary meaning of the words; if this would produce a result which is contrary to the purpose of the Act, the judge may then apply any secondary meaning which the words are capable of bearing or he may read in words which he considers to be necessarily implied by the words which are already in the statute, and he has a limited power to add to, alter or ignore words in order to prevent a provision from being unintelligible, absurd or totally unreasonable, unworkable or totally irreconcilable with the rest of the statute.

Moving away from Rupert’s statement, the three rules were developed through case law and take such different lines that it has been said that ‘the literal rule’, ‘the golden rule’ and ‘the mischief rule’ are devices by which courts may interpret statutes as they see fit.

The literal rule is the approach under which the court gives words their plain, ordinary, or literal meaning, regardless of whether the result is sensible or not. On some occasions, the rule has been applied so strictly that the object of statute may have been defeated as in Whitely v Chappel (1868) where it was an offence to impersonate “any person entitled to vote” at an election. The defendant was acquitted because he had impersonated a dead person, and the court held that a dead person was not entitled to vote. In Cutter v Eagle Star Insurance Ltd. (1998) the court defined the word “road” saying that a multi-storied car park was not a, or any part of a road. An adverse consequence of the literal rule was seen in

IRC v Hinchy where the House of Lords failed to rectify an error in a Court of Appeal decision as they had blindly interpreted the Act of Parliament without any consideration. The Parliament had to immediately amend the Act before any further miscarriage of justice occurred, and that clearly illustrated the limitation and consequence of using the literal approach.

Join now!

Problems faced due to the application of the literal approach are:

  • Some words had double meanings and the courts found it hard to choose the correct one
  • Sometimes the wording of the statute was vague
  • Often it was seen that statues were erroneous, and it’s interpretation led to ambiguous results
  • It was frequently observed that judgments made under the literal approach produced results, which the Parliament had never intended.

If the literal rule is known to manifest absurdity, then the golden rule should be applied, in order to reach a more reasonable and fair solution. This ...

This is a preview of the whole essay