Methods of statutory interpretation

This essay will show the various methods of statutory interpretation and it will also show to what extent the author believes the methods are compatible with the intentions of parliament.

Once the legislature has made the law it needs to be applied by the judiciary. It must be therefore be the job of the judges to decipher what parliament intended with that statute. This is where statutory interpretation is needed.

Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying the legislation. The courts must do this as when a case involves a statute, mainly because some statutes have a plain and straightforward meaning. And there usually is ambiguity and vagueness within the words of the statute and it is left to the judge for the matter to be resolved. This issue was addressed by Lord Denning as he once quoted “where parliament leaves a gap in legislation it is the role of a judge to make it feasible”. There are various methods and tools for judges to interpret the statute.

There are two ways in which judges can approach a statute and interpret it this includes the literal approach and the purposive approach. The literal approach is where the judge should take the literal meaning of the legislation and not go beyond or behind the legislation to find the meaning of that law.

The purposive approach does not limit the judge in going beyond and behind the legislation to find a meaning of that law. This is usually done to ultimately follow the main reason for that law being created.

There are also rules on interpreting statutes, they are described below.

The Literal Rule is where judges take the literal meaning of statute and apply this to the case at hand. An example of this can be seen in Whiteley v Chappell [1868] L.R. 4 Q.B. 147

The Golden Rule allows judges again to take the literal meaning of the statute but if the decision will lead to an absurd outcome then the judge will intervene and use their common sense to make a judgment.

There can be two types of the Golden Rule, the wider meaning and the narrow meaning.

The narrow meaning is used when there are two contradictory meanings to a word in the statute. If this occurs the court will take the meaning which doesn't create an absurdity.

The wider meaning is used when the legislation only has one meaning and where applying this meaning will cause an “absurd, inconsistent and inconvenient” outcome. An example of this can be seen in R v Sigsworth [1935] All ER Rep 113.

The Mischief Rule is usually used to determine what parliament actually meant by creating the act. An example of this can be seen in Smith v Hughes [1960] 1 WLR 830.

There also aids available to the judiciary. There are two types of aids available intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsic aids allow the court to find the meaning within the statutes, i.e. judges can look at the detailed title and the explanatory notes of the statute. The Ejusdem Generis rule can also be used.

Extrinsic aids again allow the judiciary to find the meaning of the statute. Judges can look at things outside to understand a statute completely i.e. they can look at Dictionaries, reports from the Royal Commissions. Sometimes Hansard is used to find the meaning of a statute but not the reason for the law being created, Hansard is used very rarely.

The literal approach does help to establish to find the true intentions of parliament as the parliament wouldn't purposely create legislation which would cause absurd outcomes within court. The purposive approach still is important to interpret statutes as some cases can be very unique and the literal meaning of a statute does not always cover what the law was set out to do.

Ultimately statutory interpretation is important to the English legal system as without being able interpret the law there would be a vast amount of injustice due to laws not being written properly.


Akthar, A, Ward, R, (2008). Walkers and Walkers English Legal System. 10th ed. US New York: Oxford University Press.

Donelan, E, (2004) “The Undignified Death of the Casus Omissus Rule Auchie” Statute Law Review Vol. 25 pp 40-46

Gillespie, A, (2009). The English Legal System. 2nd ed. US New York: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, D, Slapper, G (2009). English Legal System. 10th ed. London: Routledge Cavendish.

Lexis Library Cases, R v Sigsworth [1935] All ER Rep 113, Smith v Hughes [1960] 1 WLR 830, Whiteley v Chappell [1868] L.R. 4 Q.B. 147, Date accessed 9/12/09 Time 16.26