Approaches And Rules To Statutory Interpretation

I will refer to the accepted approaches and rules to statutory interpretation and also consider and show example of other tools at the disposal of the Judiciary, when deliberating on a case involving statute.

Why is it important?

Statutory Interpretation is the functional application of an evolved set of rules, by the Judiciary, when faced with ambiguities in written statutes. Each year parliament passes Acts of law which are drafted by experts in such a way as to be easily accessible to the lay person, however, it is impossible to be so concise as to allow for every eventuality. This is why statutes have rules for interpretation. Certain additional aids can be added to an Act of parliament called interpretation sections [1] . These are added in order to define a certain word or phrase in the Act, to determine whether or not its meaning renders it appropriate or inappropriate in any particular case to which it is being applied.

The tools for the job.

There are two approaches to statutory interpretation;

1.The Literal approach.

The literal approach is when the words are given their ordinary, plain grammatical meanings.

2. The Purposive (Mischief) approach.

This approach is when the Judiciary take into consideration the intention of parliament in relation to the Act.

The Rules of Interpretation.

The Literal rule.

The foundation of this rule is that Parliament has been clear and concise in its intention when passing the Act. With the “Literal rule" we must only consider the “Black letter" intent of the Act and not attempt to look at other possible meanings.

An example of the “Literal rule" being supported is in Duport steel v Sirs (1980) [2] when Lord Diplock said, “Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give plain effect to its plain meaning"

The rule can be seen in Whitley v Chappell (1868) [3] when the statute made it criminal to pretend to be any person entitled to vote. The person on trial had pretended to be someone whose name was on the voting list but was dead. The “literal" rule applied because the person was dead and therefore no longer entitled to vote.

In the case of Fisher v Bell (1960) [4] the “literal" rule also applied.

It followed from a previous case that price tags in shops are not considered offers but are called, “invitations to treat". [5] 

It was established in Fisher v Bell (1960), from the ruling in the previous case that, if goods were not offered for sale on the shelves, but only displayed in the window then there was no offence committed.(In this case it was a matter of whether or not an offence had been committed under the Restriction of offensive weapons Act (1959) )

Lord Parker said, “It is clear that under the ordinary law of contract the display of an article with a price on it in a shop window is merely an invitation to treat It is in no sense an offer for sale, the acceptance of which constitutes a contract".

In the first case the law is not considered to be broken subject to the literal interpretation of the statute. In the second case an offence is not considered to have been committed as the statute has been previously interpreted to mean this.

I believe the ruling in Whitley v Chappell to be absurd as it is obvious that the person who is named on the voting list is dead and the impersonator is on trial. These factors override any other consideration of statutory interpretation in favour of common sense.

In the case of Cheeseman v Director for Public Prosecutions (1991) [6] 

A man is charged with “wilfully and indecently exposing his person in a

street to the annoyance of passengers". This is a breach of, The Town Causes Act (1847 ).

Two on duty policemen saw Cheeseman indecently expose himself in a public toilet while they had been watching it. They were there on duty after they had been receiving complaints about the behaviour of a man in a public toilet. However the defendant was found not guilty as the two policemen

did not comply with the definition of a passenger as they were not a

passer by or through, a wayfarer or a traveller.

This is clearly an absurd result as the police officers witness the offence and gave evidence in court. Again unfortunately common sense was forgotten. It is difficult not to wonder in these circumstances, whether the Judge was a verdant supporter of the normative interpretation of statue.

Golden Rule.

The golden rule was summed up by Lord Wensleydale in Greg v Pearson (1857) as a, “sensible view of matters".

The golden rule is used to prevent an absurd result, or to better serve the cause of justice when the court is faced with choosing between certain words in a statute.

The obvious advantage of the golden rule over the literal rule is that it avoids absurd results in court.

Cases using the golden rule;

(A narrow approach) [7] 

R v Sigsworth (1935)

A son murders his own mother and it is subsequently discovered that the mother has not made a will. Under the rules of, The Administration of Justice Act 1925 the deceased’s property would normally go to her next of kin. However, in this particular case, the next of kin is her son.

The court was not prepared to allow her murderer inherit the estate of his victim so they wrote that the 'issue' would not be entitled to

inherit if they had killed the deceased.

This result is an example of how the court may attract criticism as its manipulation of an outcome seems to be solely designed around applying a remedy based upon popular opinion. [8] 

R v Allen (1872) [9] 

Offences against the person act (1861)

Allen had gone through a wedding ceremony with a woman although he was married to someone else.

In this case the particular offence was "Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife" is guilty of

bigamy. The golden rule was used and the Judge interpreted “marry" as “going

through a form of marriage ceremony". The defendant was definitely guilty.

Adler v George (1964)

Official Secrets Act (1926)

The defendant was charged with causing an obstruction to a member of the armed forces, in the “vicinity of prohibited places".

His argument was that “vicinity" meant near to, but the obstruction occurred within the prohibited place.

The judgement of the court stated that, “in this context it is reasonable to construe the meaning of vicinity as including being within the prohibited


Mischief Rule.

10There are four main considerations when applying the mischief rule.

11This rule originated with and is defined by, Heydon's Case (1584).court is then uninterested in the literal meaning of any word and this seems to be a glaring contradiction to the original intent of rules.

When this rule is applied it is because the court is trying to find out what the Act originally intended to stop. The

Other cases which show example of the mischief rule are;

Smith v Hughes 1960 [12] 

Royal college of Nursing v DHSS 1981

Abortion Act (1967)

“Pregnancy should be 'terminated by a registered medical practitioner"

As this was a difficult procedure, only a doctor was permitted to carry it out but due to the advancement of medicine and equipment, a nurse was able to assist in a major part of the operation

H/L said it was lawful because of the mischief rule

Elliot v Grey 1960

The Road traffic act (1930)

This Act states that it is illegal for an, “uninsured", car to be used on the road

Even though the car was unusable as a mode of transport,(no battery and on a jack), the court found the defendant guilty because the intention of parliament was for people not to use uninsured cars on the road.

How the defendant could have been perceived to be using the car in a manner contrary to the Act is difficult to see and I feel that had the Literal rule been applied then the finding of the court would most likely have been not guilty.

This case may be considered to be more evidence of a thinly veiled bending of the rules to meet a predetermined outcome. That is to say that I would suggest that the court wished to penalise for this type of offence.


Hansard is a record of parliamentary debate and was excluded as an instrument for interpretation until recently.

As is often the case in legal matters rules and practices change and reflect the dynamic nature of the law. It is after all unnecessary to omit or ignore a significant resource such as Hansard when deliberating; it just seems foolish I suppose to have an immovable principle in a sea of subjectivity. [13] 

In the case of Pepper v Hart the House of Lords/Now Supreme court held that Hansard could be referred to due to the rules of Parliamentary privilege. [14] 


The object of my essay is to discuss the variable meaning of words with reference to case law. I have shown the rules and given examples of some relevant cases for those rules which I have found on, The UK Law Statute Database [15] , but I have to confess that there seems to be a head scratching plethora of rules, aids to rules, constructs and methods of application for the rules, not to mention the different rules applicable to European legislation, Human Rights Act [16] and other global legislation.

In the matter of UK statute law, It is my opinion that our Judiciary has two main options regardless of personal beliefs.

Rigidly follow the Literal wording of the Statute and hang the outcome. (Please excuse the wording, no pun intended).

Apply the evolved body of accepted rules and aids to achieve the best possible outcome.

This is far from a perfect system and is largely dependent on the hope that the Judge presiding on any particular case involving Statute is as close to a robot as possible. Only when we become devoid of human emotion and frailty will we attempt to come close to the perfect algorithmic system of justice.

It would seem to the novice [17] that there is a limitless flexibility on how a court delivers a conclusion but there are limits albeit they are limits imposed on the Judiciary by the Judiciary in the form of a verbal warning [18]