The Interpretation Of Statute

The constitutional role of the courts is simply to interpret and to apply points of law derived from Acts of Parliament and delegated legislation. In short, they are responsible for applying the law and therefore, they must be a superior law-making body and independent from all government body.

When judges are interpreting statutes their aim is to give meaning to a disputed point of legislation as to show what Parliament appears to have intended called interpretation. The Interpretation Act 1978 provides some terms to be used. Some may be plain and have a straightforward meaning and some may be ambiguous and vague.

The words used in the statute are the main focus of the interpretation exercise and limit the freedom of the court. If any injustice occur after a statute was interpretation, the court is not free to create laws to fill the gap.

Statutory interpretation is therefore an exercise carried out by the court, with the aid of rules and procedures that are intended to decipher ambiguous and vague legislation.

In determining the actual meaning of the legislation, judges may use three traditional rules of interpretation which the court will employ to determine the intention of the statute. The courts also rely on rules of language and materials to assist in statutory interpretation. The three traditional rules of interpretation are;

The Literal rule

The Golden rule

The Mischief rule.

These rules are more an approach because judges have to use good judgement when interpreting the legislation.

Literal Rule

The starting point where the courts are interpreting legislation is in the statute natural meaning, the Literal rule. The court considers what the legislation is actually saying rather than considering what it might mean. Therefore the words in the legislation takes their literal meaning which involves the use of plain, ordinary, literal, grammatical meaning. Words in the statute can result in a undesirable outcome.

Disadvantages of the Literal rule

There can be a disagreement as to what amounts to the ordinary or natural meaning. R v Maginnis (1987) AC 303

Creates loopholes in the law.

Fisher v Bell (1961) QB 394

A shopkeeper was prosecuted for offering to sell an offensive weapon in the showcase which is an offence of a Restriction of Offensive Weapon Act 1959. The court held that ‘offer of sale’ must take its ordinary meaning in law therefore does not coincide with an invitation to treat.

Lead to injustice. London and North Eastern Railway v Berriman (1946) AC 278

Creates awkward precedents which require Parliamentary time to correct.

Fails to recognise the complexities and limitation of English language.

Undermines public confidence in the law

Advantages of the Literal rule

Restricts the role of the judge

Provides no scope for judges to use their own opinions or prejudices

Upholds the separation of power

Golden Rule

If the court applies the Literal rule and there was no decision, they will apply other rules of statutory interpretation. One is the Golden rule, which seeks to apply a reasonable and rational result. Where the statute was passed to remedy a weakness, the interpretation will correct that weakness making complex cases easier to understand.

Disadvantages of the Golden rule

Judges are unable to change or add meaning to statutes and thereby become law makers infringing the separate of power.

Judges have no power to intervene for pure injustice where there is no absurdity.

Advantages of the Golden rule

Errors in drafting can be corrected immediately.

In the case of Adler v George (1964) 2 QBD 7

It was claimed that the defendant was convicted of an offence contrary to section 3 of the Official Secret Act 1920, in the vicinity of a prohibited place. He argued that he was “on the station" and could not be “in the vicinity" of the station. The court held that the words “in the vicinity" of the station should be interpreted to mean ‘on’ or ‘near’ the prohibited place and therefore he was found guilty.

Decisions are generally more in line with Parliament’s intention.

Closes loopholes.

Often gives a more just result.

Bring common sense to the law.

Mischief Rule

Another rule that the court uses is the Mischief rule. This enables the statute to fulfil its intended purpose because the court examines the law before the act to discover the mischief that the statute was intended to correct. Therefore this rule is used where there is ambiguity in the statute. It was established in Heydon’s Case (1584) 3 Co Rep 7a.

Disadvantages of the Mischief rule

Creates a crime after the event thus infringing the rule of law.

Smith v Hughes (1871) LR 6 QB 597

Gives judges a law making role infringing the separation of power.

Judges can bring their own views, sense of morality and prejudices to a case.

Advantages of the Mischief rule

Closes loopholes

Allows the law to develop and adapt to changing needs.

Royal College of Nursing v DHSS (1981) 2 WLR 279

In the Abortion Act 1967, it is legal to carry out an abortion if there is a registered medical practitioner. Therefore the procedure can be carry out by nurses with the supervision of a doctor. If this case was adopted under the literal rule, the practice will be illegal but under the mischief rule no illegality occurred.

Rules of Languages

While the court uses traditional rules, they rely heavily on a number of rules of language to assist judges in their decision. The rules of language which are in the form of latin words are;

The ‘ejusdem generis’ rule of language is part of the contextual approach. It refers to word pertaining to a category or class of thing. ‘Other animals’ or ‘other thing’ are meaningless by themselves but can be simplified by reference to any specific words which precede them. For example, cats and dogs’ do not include wild animals.

Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse (1899) AC 143

Where it is an offence to use a house, office, room or ‘other place for betting’. The defendant argued that he operates an outside place. The court held that other place had to refer to other indoor places because of the words in the list.

The ‘noscitur a sociis’ is where the words of an act take their meaning from the words in the same section or company.

Muir v Keay LR 10 (1875) QBD 594

The defendant claimed that his cafe did not need a licence because he did not provided entertainment. The court held that entertainment does not have to be musical but reception and accommodation of people.

The ‘expressio unius est exclusion alterious’ is a rule of language. This statement talks about one or more things of a particular class eliminate all other member of the same class.

Harris, R v (1836) CCR

Harris bits of the end of a woman’s nose, the prosecution alleged the bite was included in ‘stab, cut or wound’. This implied that some instrument must be used. It was held that the interior of the legislation according to the words of the statute that the wounding should be inflicted with some instrument and not by the hands or teeth. The defendant was found not guilty.

Intrinsic and extrinsic Material

In order for judges to interpret the statute, they may need to examine relevant intrinsic and extrinsic material.

Intrinsic materials are materials found within the statute itself. It consists of long and short title, preamble, notes, section heading and schedules, and punctuation.

Extrinsic materials are anything outside the body of the legislation. It includes dictionary, Law Commission, Royal Commission Report, textbook and Hansard (reports of Parliament debates).

Statutory Interpretation in access to justice

Judges can interpret more than one meaning for the same word and that the meaning of the word can change depending on the context which it may be stated in. Statutory interpretation is important so that they are unable to make their own judgement in cases.

If they stumble upon any problem they cannot change the law therefore they cannot interrupt the flow of justice. In allows Parliament to be the law making body and court will then apply the law.

Statutory interpretation plays an essential role in the process of access to justice and cannot be overlooked. It is easy to see that when judges use statutory interpretation it may be considered a skill of language rather than a law. The uses of traditional rules of interpretation are applied basis on the ambiguity of the legislation and tend to somewhat cancel of each other.

Using rules of languages and, internal and external material helps interpret the law and also how the system such work. Statutory interpretation is important to the access to justice because it helps the judiciary system implement the law in an efficiency and effective way and helps the Parliament to make the law.