Legal Rules of Statutory Interpretation

Rules of Statutory Interpretation 1
Rules of Statutory Interpretation
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Rules of Statutory Interpretation 2
Rules of Statutory Interpretation
Statutory interpretation defines the processes by which judges and courts of law engage
in the understanding and interpretation of laws while applying legislation to cases. While some
legislations expressly provide clear interpretation, others do not. The latter’s circumstances lead
to ambiguity, non-specificity, and incomplete coverage by the law. They may also be caused by
new developments relating to legislation where changes have to be applied (Katzmann, 2014: 3).
As a result, judges require secondary interpretation for such legislation to successfully solve an
existing legal challenge. The rules established for statutory interpretation by judges and courts
include the literal rule, the golden rule, and the mischief rule, these get considered within
contextual and purposive approaches.
As the first rule of statutory interpretation, the literal rule draws its name from the
consideration given to statutes during legislation. In this approach, statutes are directly and
literally applied as presented by their draftsmen with their ordinary dictionary meanings being
applied. A case of historical application occurred in the Fisher v. Bell [1961] QB 394(Macleod,
2002: 111). In this case, a shopkeeper who later appealed successfully was convicted of making
an offer of a knife which was considered a prohibited and restricted weapon. While the initial
conviction believed there was an offer, a review of the case indicated that the display of the knife
with a tag was merely an invitation to a treat and not an offer. This rule is advantageous when the
statute is clear. It results in quick resolutions and respects parliamentary supremacy. On the other
hand, it can be unjust and may end up with absurd precedents.
The second rule is the golden rule which has the narrow and wide approach. It gets
applied as an extension of the literal rule and performs the role of eliminating potential absurdity
by the former. Cases falling in the narrow approach are brought about by the multiplicity of
Rules of Statutory Interpretation 3
meanings of words. In such cases, judges are compelled to select one meaning whose application
is void of absurdity and whose situational interpretation achieves the best fit (Popkin, 1999: 75).
A typical case of this application was witnessed in the Republic v. Allen (1872) LR1 CCR 376in
which the defendant was accused of bigamy to the effect that she had married more than one
persons as opposed by the law (Sandes, 1951: 184). While one argument projected that the
second marriage would never have been a marriage as civil law would not recognize it, the
courts upheld this conviction on the basis of interpreting marriage as undergoing a ceremony by
using the golden rule.
Most commonly, the wide approach gets used to eliminate ridiculous and repugnant
outcomes brought about by meanings of words (Derham, Maher &Waller, 1983: 209). A typical
case of this is evident in ReSigsworth (1935) 1 CH 98 in which the court bared a son from
inheriting the mother’s property based on the interpretation that a murderer cannot benefit from
the proceeds of the crime of murder (E-Law Resources UK, 2017). The golden rule stands out
as advantageous because errors can be easily corrected and rulings on statutes remain more
consistent with parliamentary intentions. It leads to more justice and has minimal loopholes.
Contrarily, the fact that judges can change statutory meanings make them lawmakers thereby
invading a right granted to another institution.
Lastly, the mischief statutory rule confirms the possibility of the existence of
mischievous or erroneous applications in statutes. Viewed as an approach to more understanding
of the literal and golden rules, the mischief rule enables judges to gain increased understanding
and discretion in relation to parliamentary intentions. One case involving this rule is that of
Royal College of Nursing v DHSS [1981] 2 WLR 279 in which the plaintiff challenged the
legality of abortions carried out by nurses (E-Law Resources UK, 2017). In this case, the court
Rules of Statutory Interpretation 4
read no mischief in this act by the nurses with two circumstantial qualifications making the act
legal. The law defined a doctor or legal medical practitioner which accommodated nurses.
Further, the use of non-surgical means was viewed as effective for nurses to help eliminate
dangerous and unsafe street abortions. Other than closing all mischievous loopholes, this rule
allows dynamism in the application of law. However, like the golden rule, it also grants judges
law making powers.
As suggested by Sir Rupert Cross, the unified contextual consideration approach applies
when these rules are used in determining a case. This adopts a progressive dimension in which
judges begin interpreting a statute using literal or ordinary meanings before moving to broader
views where they consider the probability of the existence of absurdities, hence prioritizing the
greatest appeal of reason.
Another such approach is the purposive approach in which jurisdictions consider
underlying legislative purposes. In this case, courts make rullings after considering literal,
golden, and mischievous rules. However, emphasis is laid on the true intentions for which
legislation was designed as explained by Lord Browne-Wilkinson in Pepper (Inspector of Taxes)
v Hart [1993] AC 593. Whether this purpose agrees with the meaning interpretation or not, the
latter prevails (The Law Teacher, 2017).In general, statutory interpretations focus on the
invocation of the rules whose results best satisfy the sense of justice in relation to cases.
Rules of Statutory Interpretation 5
List of References
DERHAM, D. P., MAHER, F. K. H., & WALLER, P. L. (1983). An introduction to law.
Sydney, Law Book Company.
E- E-LAW RESOURCES-UK. (2017). Re Sigsworth. [online] Available at: http://www.e- [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].
KATZMANN, R. A. (2014). Judging statutes. New York: Oxford University Press.
MACLEOD, J. K. (2002). Consumer sales law. London, Cavendish.
POPKIN, W. D. (1999). Statutes in court: the history and theory of statutory interpretation.
DURHAM, NC [u.a.], Duke Univ. Press.
SANDES, R. L. (1951). Criminal law and procedure in the Republic of Ireland. London, Sweet
& Maxwell.
THE LAW TEACHER (2017). Statutory Interpretation | Interpretation of Statutes Notes.
[online] Available at:
system/statutory-interpretation.php [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

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