Statutory interpretation is when a judge defines the words or phrases within an act of parliament. How those words operate in the legal system.
75% of all supreme court cases now deal with statutory interpretation!
1. Statues can use broad terminology
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 the phrase, ‘any dog of the type known as the pit bull terrier…’ was used. In the case of Brock v. DPP , the court decided that ‘type’ went further than ‘breed’ and therefore extended the label ‘dangerous’ to dogs that had a substantial number of characteristics of such a dog.
2. Ambiguity: Sometimes words can mean more than one thing and parliament might miss this fact.
R v Bassett (2008)
Revolves around Sexual Offences Act 2003, s67 - which focuses on voyeurism. The act clearly defines voyeurism as ‘watching someone and paying particular attention to their genitals, buttokcs or breasts’. Breasts causes an issue in this case. Do we mean male or female?
Facts: Bassett took a small video into the mens changing room at a public swimming pool. He was spotted watching and filming a man having a shower. The man had his swimming trunks on. His filming focused on the mans chest. The initial trial judge said he was guilty. Bassett appealed on the grounds of ‘what do we mean by breasts?’
Held: On appeal, the CoA said that ‘breasts was a term, for the purposes of the act, this term should be interpreted as applying only to women and not men’ - conviction quashed.
3. A drafting error: The Act passed contained an error that slipped through the system. This is not as unusual as it sounds.
4. New Developments: new technological or social advances need to be accounted for without requiring entirely new statues from Parliament. - Royal College of Nursing v DHSS (1981)
5. Changes in the use of language: language changes and we do not speak the same way we did hundred of years ago.
Under the literal rule, the courts will give the words of a statute their plain, ordinary, literal meaning.
London & North Eastern Railway Co. V Berriman (1946)
A railway worker was killed whilst doing maintenance work on a railway line - he was oiling points. .
His widow tried to claim compensation because there had not been a look-out man provided by the railway company under accordance of the Fatal Accidents Act which said that:-
‘A look-out most be provided for men working on or near the railway line for the purposes of relaying or repairing it’
Judges respect and apply the will of parliament (supremacy)
More democratic - means unelected judges do not make law.
More predictable – easier for people to understand what the law is & how judges apply it.
Increased certainty – it should be interpreted exactly as it is written.
This rule assumes every Act will be correctly drafted - assumes Parliament gets it right everytime.
Doesn’t give effect to what Parliament ‘intends’ - rather just the wording.
Can lead to poor decisions becoming precedent.
Words often have more than one meaning
Can lead to unfair/unjust decisions (Berriman)
Professor Michael Zander said the rule is “mechanical and divorced from the realities of the use of language”.
The Golden Rule can be thought of as an extension to the literal rule. Can only be used if the literal rule would produce an absurd outcome.
R v Allen (1872) – (Narrow view) –
D was charged with bigamy under s.57 of the OAPA 1861. The Act states 'whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence'
Under a literal interpretation the offence would be impossible to commit since civil law will not recognise a second marriage & any attempt to marry in such circumstances would not be recognised as a valid marriage
The court applied the golden rule and held that the word 'marry' should be interpreted as 'to go through a marriage ceremony'. The defendant's conviction was upheld.
Re Sigsworth: (broad approach)
D murdered his mum, who had no will.
Under the literal interpretation of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 he would inherit from her as he was her “next of kin”.
The judge thought he should not benefit from his crime and so read into the Act “but not where the issue has killed the deceased”
The golden rule can prevent the problems of the literal rule e.g. injustice
This rule can put into practice what Parliament intended
The golden rule provides a check on the strictness of the literal rule.
The golden rule respects parliamentary supremacy as it does not give judges complete freedom
An absurdity may mean different things to different judges
The golden rule has not been an effective check on the literal rule
The golden rule may give a judge too much discretion
Professor Zander’s criticisms of the golden rule "The golden rule is little more than a safety-valve to permit the courts to escape from some of the more unpalatable effects of the literal rule. It cannot be regarded as a sound basis for judicial decision-making."
This rule gives judges more discretion than the previous two rules.
This rule is often referred to as judges ‘filling in the gaps’ in the law.
Elliott v Grey  -
D’s car was parked on the road. It was jacked up and had its battery removed. He was charged with an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1930 of using an uninsured vehicle on the road. He argued he was not 'using' the car on the road as clearly it was not driveable.
The court applied the mischief rule - the car was being used on the road as it represented a hazard and therefore insurance would be required in the event of an incident. The Act was aimed at ensuring people were compensated when injured due to the hazards created by others.
The judge has greater flexibility with this rule
Favoured by the Law Commission and considered by them to be the only rule on interpretation that should be used
This rule helps achieve Parliamentary intent
It helps remove absurdity and injustice
It gives far too much power to an unelected judiciary
It doesn’t focus on the words used by Parliament (which has gone through the thorough law-making process) but rather seeks to give effect to Parliament's intentions- can a few judges really do know this?
It ends up updating an Act of Parliament and arguably, involving itself on public policy issues much better left to Parliament (see RCN v DHSS (1981)
Establishing what the ‘mischief’ was is not always straightforward
Trying to see what parliament IS TRYING TO ACHIEVE WITH LAW
R v Registrar - General, ex parte Smith.
Smith was adopted as a baby. He had killed twice and was detained in Broadmoor as he suffered from recurring bouts of psychotic illness. His psychiatrist believed that he wanted to harm his mother.
Under the Adoption Act 1976, the Registrar- General shall on an application…by an adopted person…supply to that person…a certified copy of the record of their birth’.
Literal rule - should have had ‘absolute rights’ to his birth records under the Adoption Act 1976.
Held: Court denied him access to his records. Parliament did not intend to put the natural mother at risk (he may have killed her) .
The approach gives effect to parliament’s true intentions.
The approach avoids harsh and destructive analysis of language.
The approach avoids the absurdity and injustice of the more literal approaches
The approach can only be used if the judge can find parliament’s intention & this can be difficult to find
Is there actual Parliamentary intent?
Arguably, trying to find intent allows a judge too much power. This has been argued goes against Parliamentary supremacy
Inclusory words or lists (Coltman v Bibby Tankers (1988))
Statements of principle within the Act
The Interpretation Act 1978 provides a detailed guide in interpreting certain words.
Dictionaries from the same time (Vaughan v Vaughan (1973))
Other statutes on the same topic (Wheatley (1979)
Previous case law
Hansard (Pepper v Hart)
Reports of law reform bodies (Black Clawson case- 1975)
International conventions, treaties, directives, regulations.