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Essay: Weasley v. Dursley and Another – rules of interpretation

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  • Published: 22 February 2022*
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  • Tags: Statutory interpretation essays

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1. What were the material facts of the case?

In the case of Weasley v. Dursley and Another, the material facts are as follows. The claimant was driving along a public road when he collided with a horse, which belonged to the defendants. It had escaped from the field in which it was kept after it had been seriously spooked by something, which is normal behaviour for the species within the circumstances. The claimant suffered serious personal injuries due to the collision and, after failing a claim in negligence, sought damages from the courts pursuant to section 2(2) of the Civil Liability for Animals Act 1975.

2. What was (or were) the legal issue(s) of the case?

The legal issue outlined in the case is whether, pursuant to the Civil Liability for Animals Act 1975, the owner of an animal can be held strictly liable for damage caused by that animal, where it seems that the behaviour shown was normal for such an animal in the circumstances [paragraph 5]. This is first explored under section 6(2) of the Act, where it first needs to be established as to whether such animal is to be classed as a “dangerous species” or not. Where section 6(2) does not apply, section 2(2) explores liability through damage caused where behavioural characteristics of a non-dangerous animal, although not generally displayed by animals of that species, were normal “at certain times or in certain circumstances” as per section 2(2)(b) [paragraph 14].

3. What technique(s) of statutory interpretation do you consider that Lord Nicholls employed in the case? Give reasons for your answer.

As defined by Lord Nicholls in R v SS Environment, Transport, and Regions, ex parte Spath Holme Ltd [2001] 2 AC 349, statutory interpretation is “an exercise which requires the court to identify the meaning [of] words in question in [a] particular context. The task of the court is often said to be to ascertain the intention of Parliament, expressed in the language under consideration.” Essentially, this means that judges have to interpret words and phrases in Acts of Parliament, as to give effect to the will of Parliament. Judges use 3 domestic rules and one international rule to help interpret the meaning of statutes. These are the literal rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule, and the purposive approach. Judges are free to choose which rule to use, and therefore interpretation could differ depending on which judge is hearing a case.

The literal rule gives words their ordinary, natural, dictionary definition meaning. It is typically the first rule that is applied by judges as it doesn’t require them to look further into the law. Lord Nicholls uses the literal rule to aid interpretation several times throughout his judgement, including looking at “the literal language of the statute” in paragraph 20, in paragraph 30 where he states “the words mean what they say”, and in paragraph 41 where he looks at the words “as [they are] drafted”. In paragraph 44, he also suggests that ‘the Filch interpretation’ corresponds more “easily and naturally with the statutory language”, giving words their natural dictionary meaning.

Where the literal rule would lead to an absurdity, under the golden rule judges are entitled to adjust the meaning of the word or phrase in question, in order to avoid such absurdity. It can be used where the word or phrase in question could be interpreted to give two different meanings, in which the court would select the interpretation that gives the least absurd outcome. The golden rule can be seen to be used in paragraphs 20 – 23, where Lord Nicholls talks about the two different ways in which the court have previously interpreted section 2(2)(b) in the case of Filch v Filch [1977] QB 397 and the unreported case of Flitwick v Sprout, held in the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Transcript No 1937. It is then at the discretion of the courts to decide which interpretation they find most fitting to the case in question. It can also be seen to be referred to in paragraph 9 where Lord Nicholls refers to the “obscurity” in the conciseness of the draftsman’s use of language. From this it can be suggested that section 2(2)(b) may lead to absurdities when applied literally to the facts of cases, creating problems for judges which they may wish to avoid.

The mischief rule allows judges more freedom as they are encouraged to look for the problem that the Act was originally created to deal with, and interpret the law accordingly, rather than focusing solely on the strict wording of the Act. It directs judges to look at what they believe to be Parliament’s intentions when creating the Act and not simply the words the draftsman used. Under this rule, the courts should look to see what the law was before the Act was passed in order to establish what ‘mischief’ the Act was intended to cover and then interpret the law in such a way to stop said mischief from occurring. Lord Nicholls employs the mischief rule when looking at the previous “common law” position prior to the formation of the Act, as seen in paragraph 8, and similarly when he explored the “background” of the law, in particular, when looking at the Law Commission report on Civil Liability for Animals (Law Com. No.13) in paragraph 34.

The purposive approach is known as a more international approach as it originated in the Court of Justice of the European Union. Whilst national laws are more verbose, European laws are more vaguely written, requiring judges to construct meanings that are relevant to their national language. The purposive approach is closely linked to the mischief rule in terms of flexibility, but where the mischief rule only looks at the original problem at the time the Act was passed, the purposive approach looks at the overall purpose of the Act and allows judges the freedom to interpret words in order to bring about that purpose in light of modern day conditions, which may not have been thought of when the law was originally written. Lords Nicholls looks at the general “purpose” of the Act in paragraph 9, where he held that it was in order to simplify the law, and again in paragraph 32, looking at “purpose” of the phrase in question. Also, in paragraph 44, Lord Nicholls outlines that, although (he believes) Parliament “intended” to limit liability where the animal’s conduct was normal for the species in a given set of circumstances, the language used by Parliament does not provide the support for such interpretation.

4. To what aids to statutory interpretation did Lord Nicholls refer to? Your answer must indicate whether such aids are ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’.

As well as the primary rule of interpretation, there are other ways in which the courts can try to discover the intention of Parliament, which include both intrinsic and extrinsic aids. Intrinsic aids are contained within the statute itself, and can include the short and long title, definition sections, any other relevant sections in the Act and schedules. Lord Hoffman repeatedly refers to other sections of the Civil Liability for Animals Act 1975, including sections 1 – 6 in paragraph 9, sections 6(2) and 11 in paragraph 11, section 2(1) in paragraph 13, sections 2(2)(a) and 2(2)(c) in paragraph 14 and section 5 in paragraph 24.

On the other hand, extrinsic aids are aids that are found outside the Act. Examples of these include other statutes or case judgements, materials preparatory to the creation of legislation, dictionaries, books of authority and Hansard. Extrinsic aids used by Lord Nicholls include the previous “common law” position prior to the Act in paragraph 8, the cases of Filch v Filch [1977] QB 397 in paragraph 26 and Flitwick v Sprout (unreported) Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Transcript Number 397 in paragraph 23, both of which he refers to throughout his judgement. He also refers to the judgements made in Fitzgerald v E D and A D Cooke Bourne (Farms) Ltd [1964] 1 QB 249, 258-259, 270 in paragraph 8, Pomfrey v Hufflepuff [1990] 1 WLR 459 in paragraph 27, Carrow v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police [2000] PIQR P114 in paragraph 28 and the case of Burbage v Lucille Ltd [1907] 96 LT 680 in paragraph 36 in looking at the different ways the courts have previously interpreted section 2(2)(b). In paragraphs 30 and 38 Lord Nicholls makes reference to the Law Commission report on Civil Liabilities for Animals (Law Com. No.13), which was the pre-enactment material which led to the creation of the 1975 Act, and finally the 1969 Civil Liability for Animals Bill in paragraph 39.

5. Explain, in your own words, the ratio decidendi of Weasley v. Dursley and Another [2004].

The Civil Liability for Animals Act 1975 was intended to “simplify the [common] law” [paragraph 9] and what constituted liability for damage caused by animals. As Lord Nicholls describes, the previous common law was “notoriously intricate and complicated” [paragraph 8], such characteristics ultimately establishing the need for Parliamentary interference, in hope of providing guidance. With regard to section 2(2)(b) of the Civil Liability for Animals Act 1975, which deals with liability for damage caused by animals that are not considered ‘dangerous’ (under section 6(2)), Lords Nicholls outlines that there are two possible ways of interpretation, this being what he calls ‘the Filch interpretation’ and ‘the Flitwick interpretation’. In reviewing both jurisdictions [paragraphs 42 – 46], it was held that neither interpretation provided absolutely clarity on the law, and both interpretations had flaws. With ‘the Filch interpretation’, Lord Nicholls referred to the judgement made by Lord Snape in the present case, in that it widens the scope for strict liability to be imposed and provides little opportunity for section 2(2)(b) to not be satisfied where an animal has caused damage, as a dangerous characteristic will “usually be identifiable by reference to particular times or particular circumstances” [paragraph 43]. On the other hand, upon applying ‘the Flitwick interpretation’ to the facts of the case, it was held that the scope for liability would be too narrow, which would deviate too far from what was intended and recommended in the Law Commission report (Law Com. No.13) [paragraph 45]. ‘The Flitwick interpretation’ will only give rise to instances where the characteristic or behaviour in question is seen to be ‘normal’ in a species and is there at all times, rather than just “at particular times or in particular circumstances” as per section 2(2)(b) [paragraph 46]. Lord Nicholls concludes in his judgement [paragraph 47] that, based on the facts of the case, ‘the Filch interpretation’ is his favoured means of interpretation as it can be applied “more easily and naturally with the statutory language” [paragraph 44]. He agrees with the Court of Appeal’s decision in that the keeper of an animal could be liable for the damage caused by the animal not only where the characteristic was not normally found in animals of the same species, but also where the characteristic was normal for the species at particular times or in particular circumstances, as required for section 2(2)(b). Therefore, the horse bolting in panic after being spooked (a normal characteristic in the circumstances), is within the scope of section 2(2)(b). He further went on in paragraph 48 to agree with the Court of Appeal on the facts of the case, being that it was due to the horse’s behavioural characteristics that had caused the accident, rather than the physical characteristic of it’s size. It was for this reason Lord Nicholls dismissed the appeal, upholding the Court of Appeal decision and ruling in Mr Weasley’s favour.


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