Statutory Interpretation

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STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

TOPICS:

Preliminaries
Rules and approaches
Aids to interpretation
Impact of EU and HRA

PRELIMINARIES

Statutory interpretation is the way by which the parts of a statute are interpreted in order to understand what Parliament might have intended by passing that particular statute.

Statutes are not user friendly. They are written in technical form and not too easy to understand (ambiguity). The words used in statues may have different meanings which indicate different results. Moreover, the literal meaning of statutes may not be capable of dealing with every circumstance (London & North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman). This is why statutory interpretation is necessary.

RULES AND APPROACHES

The basic constraint or norm involved in interpretation is that, judges cannot interpret statues in a way which fail to reflect the intention of Parliament; they ought to give effect to the intention of Parliament. Tindall CJ in Sussex Peerage Case (1844) said, “The only rule for the construction of Acts of Parliament is that they should be construed according to the intent for the Parliament which passed the Act.”

But this single rule gave birth to several distinct rules. It is not always possible to catch the intention of Parliament following a single procedure. This is why several rules of interpreting statues have emerged. These are discussed below:

The literal rule:
Literal rule states that the words used in a statute must be given their plain, ordinary or literal meaning (Whiteley v Chappell). This is the simplest rule to follow and best way to reflect Parliament’s intention in general. But, sometimes the structure of language may render the meaning obscure (ambiguity). Sometimes Parliament’s intention may not be well reflected through the language of a statute. Even, in some cases draftsmen may make mistakes. Moreover, absurdity may result from a literal interpretation of statutes, i.e. absurdity for inconsistencies between the provisions of an Act (Adler v George (1964)), or absurdity for any other reason (Re Sigworth; Cheeseman v DPP). In these cases the literal rule is not apposite in finding Parliament’s intention.

The golden rule:
The golden rule provides that if the words of a statue in terms of their ordinary meaning produce ambiguity (in some cases, absurdity- Re Sigsworth), the court should adopt an interpretation which avoids the ambiguity (i.e. words may be modified, but must not be taken beyond that) (Re Sigsworth, Adler v George).

This rule is known as the ‘Lord Wensleydale’s golden rule’. Lord Wensleydale in Gray v Pearson (1857) said: “…the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity.”

However, there remain some uncertainties regarding this rule. It is not clear whether it can only be applied where the words are ambiguous or whether it can also be used where meaning is clear but absurd. If it only can be applied in the first case then the golden ‘rule’ is a statement of the obvious. If it can also be used in the second scenario, then it is potentially dangerous to be used liberally (Some judges have believed that it should not be used at all in that situation, e.g. Lord Esher in R v Judge of the City of London (1892) Court said: “if the words of an Act are clear then you must follow them even though they lead to a manifest absurdity. The court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity.”)

There are also problems over the meaning of ‘absurd’, i.e. whether it means inconsistency with other provisions in same Act (Adler v George (1964)), or absurdity for any reason (Re Sigworth (1935)). Whatever its scope is, it does not allow judges to re-write an Act.

However, although this rule is helpful in avoiding absurd and repugnant results, this may...
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