Jan 12, 2018 in Law

Methods of Statutory Interpretation


Though legislature makes laws, judges help in their interpretation. They have the power to interpret the meaning of laws created by the legislature. Just like any form of communication, statutes can contain words with many meanings or words with changing meanings, depending on the situation.

Legislations should be written so that they can be effectively applied in various circumstances. However, they may not be clear at times. Use of vague language can lead to creation of statutes that are ambiguous, have no meaning, or that are not able to achieve the aim with which they were legislated. In this case, the judicial system helps in interpreting legislation and clarifying its meaning. There are three methods of statutory interpretation: Lateral Rule, Golden Rule, and Mischief Rule. These methods are discussed further in the paper.

The Literal Rule

The literal rule requires giving ordinary or literal meaning to words used in the statute. It recognizes that there should be precision in explanations and tries to interpret laws in order to reveal meaning which is close to the one intended by the legislature. It prevents judges from rewriting statutes according to their own thinking.

The judiciary uses literal meaning of statutes in the cases without giving much consideration to their broad meanings. The example is the case Whitelely v Chappel (1868). The statute prohibited impersonation of another person entitled to vote during voting exercise. After application of literal rule, however, a defendant who used the vote of a dead person was considered not guilty, since the statute claimed that a dead person is not entitled to vote.

Another example is the case Griffin v the Secretary of State for Environment (1983). According to the statute, the plaintiff had six weeks to appeal against refusal of the Secretary of State to be given permission to continue with planning. Though the letter of refusal was never delivered to the plaintiff making him totally unaware of the decision, the literal rule interpreted that the plaintiff was aware of the decision on the date the appeal was signed and let the plaintiff lose the case.

Inland Revenue Commissioners v Hinchy (1960) case was about Act 25 section 3 of the Income Tax Act of 1952 that required every tax payer to complete his or her tax returns. Failure to do that resulted in fixed penalty charges plus the highest amount of tax which should have been paid. When handling the case, the judiciary had to decide whether to base the case on the whole amount or only on the tax not paid. Literal interpretation of the case by House of Lords made Hinchy pay three times his initial tax, regardless of where he had already paid a portion of it or not.

Even though the literal rule encourages precision of interpretation, it grants the power of making laws to judges since they are the ones who interpret laws depending according to their own understanding. In addition, it sometimes leads to absurd results.

The literal rule does not always have prescribed meanings to words. Meaning of words which may seem straightforward may not always be so. Courts always spend a lot of time finding true meaning of words. In the case involving R v Maginnis (1987), where a defendant’s friend left drugs in his car and was convicted for intending to supply them. The court found him guilty based on its literal interpretation of the word ‘supply’.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule, sometimes referred to as the Lord Wensleydale’s golden rule, is applied when the use of literal rule would result in making an absurd judgment (Donelan 2004). The golden rule allows interpretation of statute in two versions: the narrow meaning and the wider meaning.

In cases where a word has two contradicting meanings, the narrow meaning of the golden rule applies. It gives priority to the meaning that does not lead to absurd result. In the case Adler v George (1964), the defendant was charged with obstruction. The Official Secrets Act of 1920 prohibited obstruction around or “in the vicinity” of a prohibited area. The court did not restrict itself to the literal meaning of words in the act and declared the defendant guilty. The defendant actually obstructed in the prohibited area.

The court uses the wider meaning of the golden rule when there is only one meaning, but the court sees that the literal interpretation may be absurd (Bourne 2010). For example, the court introduced provisions in the common law that would prevent a killer from benefiting from estates of a person he killed. This overruled the law that gave a son a right to inherit property of parents. The Golden Rule, therefore, allows modification of statutes on public policy’s grounds.

The Mischief Rule

The mischief rule came into force long ago when judges had power to influence the content of statutes, and legislature had less power compared to today (Kelly & Slapper 2009). It is the oldest of the rules. It considered the content of the common law before the statute was passed, the mischief in the common law which was not adequately covered in the statute, the remedy Parliament wanted to provide in the mischief, and reasons for adoption of the remedy by Parliament. The mischief rule did not give the judiciary authority to change statutes. In Smith v Hunges (1960) case, where a prostitute was charged for violating the Street Offenses Act of 1959 by taping a window from inside a building trying to attract customers. The building was treated as a public street for the purpose of the statute.

Other methods used by the judiciary to interpret statutes include purposive approach and contextual approach (Slapper & Kelly 2011). The purposive approach, though similar to the mischief law, concentrates on the intention of the legislature. In the case Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom v Department of Health and Social Security 1981, the court legalized an abortion method which was not clearly included in the Abortion Act of 1967 citing that the method did not exist when the act was passed by the Parliament.

Sir Rupert Cross in 1976 set up several steps for judges to follow when using the contextual approach to interpret statutes. First, both grammatical and technical meaning of words must be considered. When a judge thinks that the ordinary meaning of a word may lead to contradictory results, he may use its secondary meaning. Although a judge may read words he considers better, he has limited power to alter the statute and may use help and presumptions to interpret statutes.

Interpretive rules and presumptions include considering unrepealed statutes to be laws, the context rule, not deciding on illegality or unconstitutionality of laws, not altering the law, and not excluding the courts from determining cases. Judges also use other sources of help such as dictionaries, hansards, law commission reports, law text books, treaties, and European Union directives to interpret statutes.


The judiciary, depending on the nature of a case, can use the lateral rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule, or may choose to follow the purposive approach or contextual approach to interpret statutes. In addition, they follow interpretive rules and presumptions and use extrinsic aids such as hansards, dictionaries, and legal textbooks to help them in their interpretations. 

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