During the process of passing judgments, judges have to interpret statutes. The statutes are the laws upon which the judges base their final judgements. Therefore the role of judges is to interpret statutes when passing judgements. This is called statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation means the process of interpreting and applying legislation. Statutory interpretation is necessary for the judgements of judges to be clear and easy to understand.
Some laws are complicated and contain some ambiguity so statutory interpretation becomes useful. Judges have to know the meaning and purpose of legislation before passing a judgement based on the legislation. Legislation can be seen as a form of communication between the Parliament and the Judiciary. The Parliament makes the law and makes provisions for the law and punishments for the breach of the law and the judiciary carries out the wishes of the Parliament by acting according to its rules. Legislation may contain certain issues including uncertainty, ambiguity, imprecise and hurried drafting and broad terms. The judges then have the duty to interpret the statutes to fit the purpose for which the statutes were drafted and to get rid of the inconsistencies, uncertainties and ambiguities. Also, unforeseeable developments and changes in the use of language may cause confusion in determining the meaning and contents of the legislation. The judge therefore has to find solutions to these kinds of problems so as not commit injustices.
There are two basic approaches to resolving the problems of statutory interpretation. They are the Purposive Approach and the Literal Approach.
The purposive approach indicates that judges should look beyond the contents of the statute and discover the original purpose for the enactment of the legislation, where it is absolutely needed and its meaning should be defined from that purpose. This is common to the civil law system where general principles are included in the legislation but further details are left for the judges to determine in accordance with the general principles already laid out. The European Community law is in this form. In Pepper v Hart (1993), Hart, who was a teacher in the school which is child attended, benefitted from concessionary fees and the Inland Revenue wanted to claim this benefit from him on the basis of the Finance Act 1976. Hart argued that the cost to the College for educating their children. During the committee stage of passing the law, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Robert Sheldon stated that “the benefit will be assessed on the cost to the employer”. In the initial courts, the decisions favoured the Inland Revenue and at that time, statements made in Parliament and those recorded in Hansard were of no consequence in the courts. However, the House of Lords reversed this decision and stated that the statements made in the Parliament and those recorded in Hansard should be considered when dealing with obscurities and ambiguities in legislations and passing judgements. To make use of the purposive approach the Parliament’s purpose and intent must be obvious and/or the meaning to be derived must have common attributes with the subject matter.
The Literal Approach holds that the judge should not look beyond the content of the legislation when passing a judgement and also from it find its meaning and only in very limited circumstances should a judge look outside or beyond the legislation to find the meaning of the legislation. The literal approach has several rules that will be discussed below. These rules assist the judges in giving appropriate meanings to legislations.
The Literal rule means that the judge must make use of the ordinary plain dictionary meaning of the words of the legislation in giving meaning to the legislation even if the meaning makes the judgement unjust. In R v Goodwin (2005) the rider of a jet-ski in the sea off Weymouth crashed into another jet-ski and it caused serious injuries to the driver of the other jet-ski. Initially, the defendant was prosecuted under s 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 which made it a crime for the ‘master of….a United Kingdom ship’ to negligently act in such a manner that could likely cause harm to any person. S 313 of the Act defines a ship as any vessel ‘used in navigation’. The defendant was found guilty. However, in an appeal, the Court of Appeal stated that s 58 referred to only sea-going ships and the jet-ski was used within the port of Weymouth and could not be said to be ‘sea-going’. The Literal rule in some cases tends to be partial.
The Golden rule is used when the application of the literal rule seems to be absurd and unjust. Lord Backburn further explained that if the words of the statute were to be given their plain meanings, inconsistencies and absurdities would be produced. The courts cannot carry out the intention of the legislation except the literal rule is ignored and the golden rule is applied. It has two versions; the narrow and the wider meanings. The narrow meaning operates when a word has two contradictory meanings and the one which is less ambiguous is adopted. In Adler v George (1964), the defendant had been convicted of causing obstruction in the vicinity of a prohibited area and the court referred itself to the wordings of the Act to judge the defendant who was found guilty. The wider meaning operates in a situation in which there is only one meaning but the court objects to it in order not to produce inconsistencies and absurdities. In Re Sigworth (1935), a son had killed his mother and wanted to inherit from her but the courts did not allow it as it would mean that he was benefitting from his crime.
The Mischief rule uses previous common law to give meaning to the new legislation. The Heydon’s case (1584) reveals the purpose of the mischief rule. The mischief rule applies what the Parliament meant. In Corkery v Carpenter (1950), a man was found to be guilty of being drunk when in charge of a carriage when in actual fact it was a bicycle.
The Ejusdem Generis rule, if a list is followed by general words, the general words are interpreted in the context of that list. In Powell v Kempton Racecourse (1899), the words ‘other place’ were held to mean ‘other indoor place’ because the list consisted of a house, office, room or other place’ and the places in the list were all indoors.
The Expressio unius est exclusio alterius rule means that only the things in the list covered by the legislation should be considered if there are no general words at the end of the list. In R v Inhabitant of Sedgley, the court held that ‘lands and coalmines’ implicitly excluded other types of mines from the scope of ‘lands’.
The Noscitur a sociis rule means that the meaning of words can be derived from the meaning of the words around them. Ambiguity can be clarified by reading the Act as a whole. The intent of the Act can therefore be known.
The judges can also make use of assistance and aids. They could be either intrinsic or extrinsic assistance.
Intrinsic assistance means that the judges use the whole of the statute to understand a part of it. It could either be the title or the preamble of the legislation. Punctuations can also be used to give effect to the meaning of words or the legislation. Some statutes have section headings and marginal notes that can assist but the extent is uncertain. In DPP v Schildkamp (1969), the court provides authority to the use of section headings as assistance.
Extrinsic assistance means those aids that are outside the statute but can be consulted to be able to give adequate meaning to the legislation. These include dictionaries in order to find the meaning of non-legal words, textbooks for guidance in particular sections of the legislation, referral to other statutes. The Interpretation Act 1978 defines words and phrases of the legislation and this can also assist the judges. It also states that anything that means masculine should also be referred to as feminine. White papers can also be used to find meanings of legislation, the historical setting and the Hansard; the record of the proceedings in the British Parliament. In W v MPC (2006), there was a confusion whether ‘remove’ meant a police officer or CSO could use force to take an under 16-year-old home from a ‘dispersal area’, and it was decided that it did.
Judges also use presumptions to interpret statutes. There are various assumptions which can be used.
Firstly, the common law cannot be abolished without an Act which clearly states that the common law has been abolished. In Fisher v Bell (1961), a flick knife displayed in a shop was not ‘offered for sale’ and the court ruled that, since the new legislation did not over rule the common law and that the draftsmen know technical legal language, the common law was still valid.
Secondly, there must have been a mental element before a crime can be said to have been committed. This is the doctrine of mens rea. There must have been an intention to commit the crime before a person can be convicted of the crime. If mens rea can be proved, then the person is criminally liable.
Thirdly, the judges presume that an Act does not act retrospectively except the Act expressly states that it does. This is possible because the Parliament is supreme and has the highest constitutional powers so it can pass any kind of law it wishes. In Home Secretary v Wainwright (2002), two relatives who were visiting a prisoner and they claimed that it was a violation of their rights and private lives but the courts held that s 3 of the HRA 1998 could not be relied upon as the Parliament failed to state that it could act retrospectively.
Fourthly, gaps and omissions should not be filled in by the judges as the Parliament should draft the law appropriately and avoid mistakes.
Also, any legislation does not refer, include or bind the crown except the legislation expressly states that it does.
Also, the legislation refers to only citizens and people living in the United Kingdom and also the law, if necessary, should give effect to existing international laws.
Lastly, the legislation does not act in such a way that it deprives people of their liberty except the legislation expressly states that it does.
The presumptions and resources the judges adopt to be able to interpret statutes accurately help a great deal in giving the right meanings to the statutes. They help to reduce absurdities and inconsistencies in the passing of judgements.
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