From your own research identify and explain 3 methods of statutory interpretation; indicate when each is likely to be used and by which courts.
Select the leading decision from one of your current core modules (i.e. tort, public law, or contract law) involving the interpretation of the statute. Explain which method of statutory interpretation was preferred and show how it was used. How, if at all did the method selected affect the decision reached?
A statute is a formal, written law of a country or state, written and passed by its legislative authority, perhaps to then be approved by the highest executive in the government, and finally published. Typically, statutes command, prohibit, or declare something. Statutes are sometimes referred to as legislation.
Statute interpretation is the interpretation of statutes by the courts. It occurs in occasions when an act of parliament is unclear and therefore creates uncertainty in the law. Stature interpretation is necessary when an act that has been passed maybe be unclear, for example, a term maybe used to cover several opportunities e.g. the Dangerous Dogs act 1991. Also meaning of can change over a period of time, which creates uncertainty e.g., Cheeseman v D.P.P 1990.
There are three methods that judge’s use when trying to interpret a statute: the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule.
There is a quote by Lewis Caroll that explains the basic idea of the literal rule.
“When I use a word…” said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “… It means what I choose it to mean neither more or less”.
The literal rule purely means the interpretation of acts according to their literal meaning and it is the first approach that judges will use when interpreting a statute. Judges using the literal rule will follow the literal, ordinary or natural meaning of even if the result produced is absurd such as in Whitely V Chapell (1868). It can also lead to injustice as in London and Eastern Railway Co v Berriman (1946). It can also punish parliament by making it pass another Act as in Fisher V bell (1960).
The word used in Whitely was “Person”. It was illegal to impersonate any person entitled to vote. The defendant was charged after he attempted to vote in place of a general elector who had just recently died. The courts interpreted the word “person” in its literal meaning and held that because the elector the defendant tried to impersonate had just recently died, he is, therefore no longer a person and as a result the defendant was found not guilty.
The injustice caused in London and eastern Railway Co was because the Fatal Accidents Act stated that the claim of Berriman’s widow for damages were payable to employees killed while relaying and repairing the track. Berriman, who was a railway worker, was killed while working on the track. He was carrying out a routine maintenance and oiling which did not literally come under relaying and repairing and that’s why Berriman’s widows claim for damages had failed.
The defendant in Fisher placed a flick knife in a shop, which went against the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act (1959). The defendant stated that the knife was not “offered for sale”. The judges initially found that displaying the knife was merely an invitation to treat and not an offer, therefore the defendant was not found liable. In the same year (1960), parliament overruled the decision by statue.
Professor Granville Williams quoted “The Literal rule is a rule against using intelligence and understanding in language…”
The Golden rule is an extension of the Literal rule and can be used if the Literal rule produces an ambiguity. The Golden rule was defined in Grey v. Pearson (1857) “The ordinary sense of the is to be adhered to, unless it would lead to absurdity, when the ordinary sense may be modified to avoid the absurdity but no further.” The rule requires the court to give the their ordinary grammatical meaning. The court should choose the meaning that creates the least absurd result. Further if it isn’t possible to apply an appropriate definition, the courts may alter the so that the purpose of the act is achieved. Lord Reid quotes “ In order to give effect to the true intention of parliament it maybe necessary to do some violence to the ”
R v Allen (1872) is one of the cases highlighting the use of the Golden rule. It was held that bigamy meant to go through ceremony even though the Act provided it was illegal to be married twice, even though the second marriage was void, so they had not literally broken the law.
There are two ways of using the Golden rule.
The Narrow approach – which would be used when the have more than one meaning and the better meaning is chosen, for example in Alder v George (1964). Alder gained access to a R.A.F station, which was a prohibited place and he was actually within its boundaries. He put forward the argument that because of the fact that he was actually in the prohibited place, he could not be said to be “in the vicinity” of the prohibited place. The defendant was found guilty of because “in the vicinity of”, should have been interpreted to mean on or close to the prohibited place.
The Broader approach – which is when actually have more than one meaning but the judges do not want to apply it for policy reasons. A case that highlights this is Re v Sigsworth (1935) where a son was prevented from inheriting from his mother he had just murdered.
The Mischief rule is the oldest rule coming from a four-point procedure identified in Heydon’s case (1954). The court should: look at the act prior passing the act, identify the ‘mischief’ or the thing that was missing from the previous law, identify the way parliament proposed to remedy the defect and also give effect to that remedy.
Smith v. Hughes (1963) Street offences Act 1958, related “street or public place”.
The case Smith v Hughes is an example of the Mischief rule being put into practice.
The 1958 Street offences act made it an offence to loiter in a street or public place for the purpose of common prostitution.
Two prostitutes were convicted for sitting on the bay window of their flat tapping the window to attract the attention of male passers by. They claimed in their defence that they were not in a public place.
The court used the Mischief rule and the girls were found guilty as they could be seen from a public place or street. In fact Lord Reid made it clear that the girls would be made liable even if they could not be seen but heard.
In the case Fisher v Bell (1964) the QBD decided to use the Literal rule to interpret the case. The defendant placed a flick knife in his shop window, which was contrary to the Restriction of Offensive Weapons act (1959). The act provides that ‘any person who manufactures, sells or hires, offers for sale, lends or gives to any other person shall be guilty of an offence’. The defendant stated that the knife was not ‘offered for sale’ and was successful in his argument. The QBD had to decide during the case whether the shopkeeper was guilty of ‘offering the knife for sale’ even though he had not sold any.
The QBD held that the display of the knife in the shop window was not offered for sale, it was merely an invitation to treat, which was why the defendant was not found guilty of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons act.
The reasons why the judges apply the Literal rule to cases such as Fisher v Bell is because if judges rewrote law according to moral judgements, people would often sue because there could be a chance that they could get a favourable judgement, and therefore, be a vast increase in litigation. Also because the need for certainty in the criminal law there is a strong view that the literal meanings of should be used. On the other hand this point can be argued because there is not always certainty towards literalism.
There is not always a positive outlook to the Literal as it can sometimes prove to be quite controversial. When applying the Literal rule to interpret and phrases in cases it can often lead to a result that can be absurd and completely immoral such as the case I have already mentioned: Whitely v Chapel (1868). That is why Parliament overruled the initial decision in Fisher v Bell
However, in Parliament’s eyes the decision was so bad that they overruled it by statute in the same year.