About Statutory Interpretation
Judges have often said that the aim of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of Parliament (source).
To do this, a number of rules may be applied when interpreting a piece of legislation.
- The literal rule
- The golden rule
- The mischief rule
- The purposive approach
The literal rule is the starting point for any interpretation – it requires courts pay respect to the literal language of the statutory provision. They must interpret the legislation using the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used.
Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not then for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they consider the consequences for doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral.
Duport Steel v Sirs (1980)
The oft-quoted case illustrating this rule is Fisher v Bell (1960).
- Under the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 it was an offence to offer for sale certain offensive weapons including flick knives.
- Bristol shopkeeper James Bell displayed a weapon of this type in his shop window in the arcade at Broadmead.
- The Divisional Court held that he could not be convicted because, giving the words in the statute a tight literal meaning, Mr Bell had not offered the knives for sale.
- Under contract law, placing something in a shop window is an ‘invitation to treat’, rather than an offer for sale. The customer makes the offer when he puts up money in payment for the item.
- Parliament subsequently changed the law.
The use of this rule can sometimes lead to absurdities and loopholes which can be exploited by an unmeritorious litigant (source).
Where using the literal rule would lead to such absurdity, judges may instead look to the golden rule which requires them to look for another meaning of the words to avoid that absurd result.
As set out by Lord Wensleydale in Grey v Pearson (1857) HL Cas 61:
The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.
An example of the court applying the Golden rule can be found in Re Sigsworth (1935) concerning a case where a son had murdered his mother.
Since the mother had not made a Will, the son stood, as her next of kin, to inherit her estate under the Administration of Justice Act 1925.
Whilst there was no ambiguity in the legislation, applying it literally would produce an absurd result – and the courts were not prepared to allow someone to benefit from their crime in such a manner. The golden rule was therefore used and the son did not inherit.
Sometimes neither rule is of use to a court. Enter the mischief rule. This rule allows the court to look behind the making of the legislation. It is set out in Heydon’s Case (1584) and four things must be considered:
- What was the common law before the making of the Act?
- What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide?
- What remedy Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth?
- The true reason of the remedy; and then the office of the Judges is to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.
Perhaps the most famous case illustrating the mischief rule was Corkery v Carpenter (1951).
The facts of the case involved the defendant who was drunk and was pushing his pedal bicycle along the street. He was subsequently charged under section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872 with being drunk in charge of a “carriage”.
The 1872 Act made no reference to “bicycles”. The court, applying the mischief rule, found that the purpose of the Act was to prevent people from using any form of transport on a public highway whilst in a state of intoxication. Since the bicycle was clearly a form of transport, the defendant had been correctly charged.
A fourth means of statutory interpretation has emerged in more recent times. Rather than simply look at what the law was previously, the courts have begun to examine what Parliament was trying to achieve. The approach was always used when interpreting European Law, although Britain has of course now left the EU.
First, the courts have been required to accept that, from 1973, the purposive approach has to be used when deciding on EU matters. Second, as they use the purposive approach for EU law they are becoming accustomed to using it and more likely to use it to interpret domestic law.
An example of how the courts have taken this approach can be found in Pickstone v Freemans plc (1998).
- Women warehouse operatives were paid the same as male warehouse operatives.
- The work of the warehouse operatives was of equal value to that done by male warehouse checkers who were paid £1.22 per week.
- The employers argued that a woman warehouse operative was employed to do the same work as the male warehouse operatives, so she could not bring a claim under the Equal Pay Act 1970 section 1(2) (c) for work of equal value. This was a literal interpretation of the 1970 statute.
- The House of Lords decided that the literal approach would have left the United Kingdom in breach of its treaty obligations to give effect to an EU directive. It therefore used the purposive approach and stated that Miss Pickstone was entitled to claim on the basis of work of equal value even though there was a male employee doing the same work as her (source).
In short, her work as a warehouse operative was seen as equal in value to the work that the male warehouse checkers were doing. The fact that there were male warehouse operatives who were also receiving the same lower sum as Miss Pickstone was not a bar to her claim.
Approaching essays on statutory interpretation
How should law students approach an essay on statutory interpretation?
- Understand the relevant statute: Start by reading the statute in question and researching the relevant context. Understand the language and structure of the statute, including the definitions of key words and phrases.
- Check for relevant caselaw: Consult legal databases to search for any cases that interpret the statute. Read through the relevant cases to understand how the courts have interpreted the statute.
- Identify the interpretive approach: Decide which approach to statutory interpretation you will use. You may wish to consider more than one approach.
- Analyse the statute: Apply the chosen interpretive approach to the statute to analyse its meaning.
- Make an argument: Argue for your interpretation of the statute and explain why you think it is the correct interpretation.
- Synthesise: Bring together your research and your argument to reach a conclusion on the meaning of the statute.