Statutory Interpretation
Approaches to statutory interpretation
Lesson Objectives
• I will be able to explain the 4 approaches
to statutory interpretation
• I will be able to use cases to illustrate the
rules of statutory interpretation
A broad term:
“type known as
the pit bull
terrier” in
Dangerous Dogs
Act 1991. What
does this word
The need for
A drafting error
made by the
Changes in the use of
counsel who
language: the meaning of
drafted the
a word might change, e.g.
original bill, e.g.
the meaning of
as a bill is
“passenger” in
amended on its
Cheeseman v DPP 1990
way through
Ambiguity: if a
word has two or
more meanings
which is the one
that should be
e.g. in
technology. In
Royal College of
Nursing v DHSS
1981 “medical
now includes
nurses for the
purposes of
Introduction to
statutory interpretation
Statutory interpretation concerns the role of judges when
trying to apply an Act of Parliament to an actual case.
The wording of the Act may seem to be clear when it is
drafted and checked by Parliament, but it may become
problematic in the future.
75% of cases heard by the house of lords are concerned
with statutory interpretation.
1. Presumption against
a change in the
common law
2. Presumption that
mens rea is required
in criminal cases
of the court
3. Presumption that the
Crown is not bound by
any statute unless the
statute expressly says so
4. Presumption that
legislation does not
apply retrospectively
Presumptions are beyond the scope of this
The rules of interpretation
There are two approaches to statutory interpretation:
the literal approach and the purposive approach.
There are also three main rules of statutory interpretation
that judges use to decide a case:
• the literal rule
• the golden rule
• the mischief rule
Literal rule – 2. Golden rule – the best interpretation of 3. Mischief rule
words are
ambiguous words can be chosen to
– looks at the
given their
avoid an absurd result. The golden
gap in law
rule provides a kind of “escape route”
prior to the
when there is a problem with the literal
Act and
words to
Whiteley v
Allen: “Marry” = “go through a
“suppress the
Chappell: D
ceremony of marriage”. Narrow
was found not
guilty of
Smith v Hughes:
Re Sigsworth: Son not allowed to inherit
from mother because he murdered her.
calling from a
Wider version.
entitled to
house to men
vote” when he
in the streets
impersonated a
dead man, as a
soliciting “in
dead person is
a street”.
not “entitled to
Three rules of
NB these three rules are all part of the literal approach:
by using them judges are still trying to find/understand
the meaning of the actual words in the statute. Even when
using the mischief rule it is primarily the words of the
statute that the judge is most concerned with.
Literal rule
The literal rule respects parliamentary sovereignty.
The judges take the ordinary and natural meaning of the
word and apply it, even if doing so creates an absurd
Lord Esher said in 1892:
‘The court has nothing to do with the question of whether
the legislature has committed an absurdity.’
Literal Approach
The Literal Approach gives words their ordinary
grammatical meaning
R v Judge of the City of London Court: “If the
words of an act are clear then you must follow
them even though they lead to a manifest
absurdity. The court has nothing to do with the
question whether the legislature has committed
an absurdity”
LNER v Berriman: Not “relaying or repairing” track
but oiling points (maintenance)
• Leaves law-making to Parliament / respects
democracy BUT assumes every Act will be
perfectly drafted – Fisher v Bell
• Makes law more certain BUT can lead to “unfair”
decisions or absurd results – LNER v Berriman
Pinner v Everett (1969)
Lord Reid – “in determining the meaning of
any words or phrase in statute, the first
question to ask is always what is the
natural and ordinary meaning of that word
or phrase in its context of the statute.”
Whiteley v Chappell (1868)
Defendant voted in the name of a
deceased person when the law stated that
‘any person is entitled to vote at an
Fisher v Bell (1961)
This case concerned a flick knife displayed in a shop window.
Lord Parker acquitted Bell under the Restriction of Offensive
Weapons Act 1959, even though it was obvious that this was
exactly the sort of behaviour that Parliament intended to stop.
He justified his decision because the draftsmen knew the legal
term ‘invitation to treat’ (which would have been applicable in
this case) but failed to include it.To respect Parliament’s
sovereignty he had to infer that they had left it out on purpose.
Golden rule
The golden rule is an extension of the literal rule.
If the literal rule gives an absurd result, which is obviously
not what Parliament intended, the judge should alter the
words in the statute in order to produce a satisfactory
Judges may used the narrow approach or the broad
R v Allen (1872)
R v Allen is an example of the narrow approach of the
golden rule.
The wording of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861
had to be given a different interpretation for the crime of
bigamy, because the way it was written meant that the
crime could never be committed.
The court used the golden rule and held that ‘marry’
meant ‘to go through a marriage ceremony’.
Adler v George (1964)
Where there is only one literal meaning of a word or phrase, but
to apply it would cause an absurdity, then under the broad
approach the court will modify this meaning to avoid absurdity.
Defendant charged under the Official Secrets Act 1920 which
made it an offence to obstruct a member of the armed forces in
the vicinity of a prohibited place. Defendant claimed he was ‘in’
not ‘in the vicinity of’.
Court applied broad approach and applied the word ‘in’ to mean
in the vicinity of and changed the meaning of the word.
Mischief rule
The mischief rule (or purposive approach) gives judges the
most flexibility when deciding what ‘mischief’ Parliament
intended to stop. It was established in Heydon’s Case
When using this rule, a judge should consider what the
common law was before the Act was passed, what the
problem was with that law, and what the remedy was that
Parliament was trying to provide.
Fill in the gaps left by the Act.
1. What was the
common law before
the making of the
2. What was the
mischief and defect
for which the
common law did not
The mischief
rule: Heydon’s
case 1584
3. What was the remedy the
Parliament hath resolved to
cure the disease of the
4. The true reason of
the remedy
The court then interprets the Act in such a way as to cure the “mischief”
Smith v Hughes (1960)
The defendants were charged with ‘soliciting in a street or
public place for the purposes of prostitution’ contrary to
the Street Offences Act 1959. They were soliciting from
upstairs windows.
Lord Parker used the mischief rule to convict, as he
believed that the ‘mischief’ that Parliament had intended
to stop was people in the street being bothered by
The Purposive Approach
The mischief rule involves the court looking back to the
common law position before the Act was passed to find
the gap in the law that Parliament was trying to fill.
The purposive approach focuses on what Parliament
intended when passing the new law.
It is a modern version of the mischief approach. The
purposive approach has been used in:
Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Hart (1993) – taxable
benefits at private school
Jones v Tower Boot Co. (1997) – racial abuse at work
Purposive Approach
The Purposive Approach looks for the purpose
of Parliament and interprets words
Jones v Tower Boot Co: “In the course of
employment” included racial harassment that
happened at work even though it was not part
of the work
• Leads to justice in individual cases BUT
makes law less certain
• Fills in the gaps in the law BUT leads to
judicial law-making as opposed to democratic
• Broad approach covers more situations BUT it
is difficult to discover the intention of
Trends towards the purposive approach
• The literal approach is easily the more usual
approach used by English courts
• But use of the purposive approach is increasing:
Most European countries use it
The ECJ uses it in interpreting European Law
(Marleasing), and therefore so must English
The Human Rights Act 1998 says that legislation
must be interpreted as far as possible to be
compatible with the European Convention on
Human Rights. This will involve “inserting
words” in effect into Acts to comply with this
purpose: Offen; Mendoza v Ghiadan
Bulmer Ltd v J Bollinger SA (1974)
Lord Denning compared the different
approaches of UK and EU law.
When UK was bound by EU law, it is necessary
to use the purposive approach. Denning stated
“No longer must they examine the words in
meticulous detail. No longer must they argue
about the precise grammatical sense. They must
look to the purpose or intent.”
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Statutory Interpretation