Types Of Statutory Interpretation

The role of 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.

Stated in Slapper and Kelly (2004, pp. 192), ‘it has to be recognised that determining the actual meaning of legislation presents judges with a practical difficulty.’ This is mainly due to some of the words in the statute being plain and having a straightforward meaning and some may be ambiguous and vague. Meaning of words may have a broad term where judges can interpret differently.

Therefore when judges are interpreting statutes their aim is to give meaning to disputed point of legislation as to show what Parliament appears to have intended.

Due to various cases entering the courts the status may appear different in interpreting because of unforeseeable development in new cases.

Therefore the ‘Parliament has given the courts some sources of guidance on statutory interpretation’ stated in Mortimer (2009 pp. 305). In the Interpretation Act 1978 provides some terms to be used. [1] .

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

‘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’ stated in Statutory Interpretation (Anon., 2003-2010)

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. According to Mortimer (2009 pp. 306) ‘this provides that the words in the statute gives their plain, ordinary, literal meaning’. Words in the statute can result in an undesirable outcome.

Disadvantages of the Literal rule

There can be a difference as to what amounts to the ordinary or natural meaning. R v Maginnis (1987) AC 303 [2] 

It 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 gauche precedent which requires Parliamentary time to correct.

Fails to recognise the difficulties and limitation of English language.

Advantages of the Literal rule

Restricts the role of the judge

Judges are unable to use their own opinions or prejudices in cases

Upholds the separation of power

Golden Rule

In the court, ‘the first rule that should be applied is the literal rule, and that rule only cedes to the golden rule in particular circumstances where ambiguity arises from the application of the literal rule’, states in Slapper and Kelly (2004 pp. 199-200).

Therefore it means that if the court applies the literal rule and there was no decision, they will use the golden rule. It 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

Due to judges inability to change or add meaning to statutes as a result they become law makers infringing the separation 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. According to Slapper and Kelly (2004 pp.200) ‘the mischief rule, it is suggested, is only brought into use where there is a perceived failure of the other two rules to deliver an appropriate result.’ ‘This looks at intention of the statute’ Statutory Interpretation (Anon 2003-2010) 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 [3] .

Disadvantages of the Mischief rule

Crime is created 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 cannot 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.

The Purposive Approach

Because of some of the disadvantage with the ‘rules’ Lord Denning create a fresh approach called the purposive approach. According to Mortimer (2009 pp. 311), it ‘takes into account not only the mischief but also the social conditions which gives rise to the legislation.’ Therefore it helps to interpret more into the legislation which judges can use of further reference, Seaford Court Estate v Asher (1949) 2KB 481.

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

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 ‘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


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. This allows Parliament to be the law making body and the 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 based on the ambiguity of the legislation and tend to somewhat cancel out each other.

Using rules of languages and the purposive approach helps interpret the law. Statutory interpretation is important to the access to justice because it helps the judiciary system implement the law in an efficient and effective matter and helps Parliament to make the law.