The Literal Rule
Words should be given their ordinary, dictionary meaning, with no exceptions. Lord Esher stated in R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892) that this should be done even if it leads to a 'manifest absurdity'. Judges who follow this rule, only apply the law and do not try to interpret the law. Advantages
Provides the will of parliament
Maintains the separation of powers
Defeats parliaments intentions
- Whiteley v Chappell (1868).
Defendant charged under a section which made it an offence to 'impersonate any person entitled to vote'. The person the defendant was pretending to be was dead, so the defendant was found not guilty; because taking it literally, a person who is no longer alive is not entitled to vote. This was an absurd result.
- London & North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman (1946).
Railway worker killed while doing maintenance work on train tracks. His widow tried to claim compensation because there had not been a look-out man provided by the company; Fatal Accidents Act stated a look-out man should be provided if the worker was 'relaying or repairing' the tracks. Taking it literally, 'maintaining' was not the same as 'relaying or repairing', so Mrs Berriman's claim failed.
Fisher v Bell 
A shopkeeper displayed a flick-knife in his window. The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 made it an offence to offer such a knife for sale. The defendant argued that a display of anything in a show window is simply an offer to treat and this means that, under contract law, it is the customer who makes the offer to buy the knife.
Cheeseman v DPP (1990)
Members of the public had complained about incidents of this sort. Police Officers were stationed in a public toilet to catch the offenders. They arrested someone who had exposed himself and charged him under S.28 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1847 for the offence of 'wilfully and indecently exposing the person in a street to the annoyance of passengers'. The Court held that the offence was not proved as the evidence came from Police Offciers who were on duty rather than present "as passengers" as required by the Act. The requirement that the people annoyed by the act had to be "passengers" was interpreted literally.
[Cutter v Eagle Star Insurance] 1998
If the wording of a statute is clear, the Law can be applied literally for example in the case of Cutter v Eagle Star Insurance Co Ltd (1998), whether an insurance company was liable to a person injured in a car park, the House of Lords found that the relevant Act specificied a ‘road’ and not a ‘car park’ theresore no compensation had to be paid by the company.
[R v Bentham] 2005
In the case of R v Bentham (2005), the House of Lords had to interpret the Firearms Act 1968 to determine whether a man, who during a robbery, had used is fingers beneath his jacket pretending he had a gun, should be convicted of possession of an imitation firearm.
When Lord Bingham looked closely at the precise wording of the statute – ‘anything which has the appearance of a firearm… whether or not it is capable of discharging any shot, bullet or other missile’ – he stated that Parliament had clearly intended to legislate about ‘imitation firearms’, not to create an offence of falsely pretending to have a firearm. Additionally, ‘possession’ of something requires it to be seperate to the body and a ‘thing’ could not possibly refer to a part of the body since a ‘thing’
[R v Allen] 1872
Allen was accused of bigamy (marrying a person while you are still married to someone else) under s.57 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The statute states 'whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence'. The law seemed to suggest that he could not marry as he...
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