Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary
Interpretation of statutes has been an essential part of English law since Heydon’s Case in 1854 and although it can seem complex, the four main rules are easy to learn.
English law is designed to be clear, precise and as unconditional as possible in order that those who are subject to it can know what behaviour is proscribed, and what is permitted. However, it can be difficult to create laws that cater for unforeseen circumstances, so the courts have developed rules on interpretation of statutes in order to fill in the gaps.
The most common rule of statute interpretation is the literal rule, derived from the Sussex Peerage Case (1844). According to this rule, the words in a statute must be given their plain, ordinary and literal meaning.
However, the literal rule sometimes causes absurdities; such as in Whiteley v. Chappell (1868), where a defendant was found not guilty of impersonating “any person entitled to vote” because they had impersonated a dead person.
As a result of these problems, the courts developed the golden rule; which was first expressed in the case of Grey v. Pearson (1857). The golden rule states that “the grammatical and ordinary sense of words may be modified so as to avoid [an] absurdity or inconsistency, but no farther.”
The golden rule has two forms: wide and narrow. The wide rule, as demonstrated by the decision in Re Sigsworth  that a son who murdered his mother could not inherit her estate, allows an obnoxious result to be avoided even where the wording of a statute has only one true meaning.
The narrow rule is much more restrictive however and is only used where there is ambiguity or absurdity in the law itself. For example, in R v. Allen (1872) the Act outlawing bigamy gave rise to an impossibility. The court, therefore, interpreted the bigamy legislation so as to imply commission if a person underwent the marriage ceremony while already married, rather than having to be married twice at the same time; an impossibility due to the wording of the marriage law.
The oldest rule of statutory interpretation is the mischief rule, also known as the rule in Heydon’s Case (1584). According to this rule, the court examines what the state of the law was before the legislation was passed, in order to determine what problem, or “mischief”, it was supposed to prevent.
It does this by asking four questions:
As the rule interprets statutes addressing defects in the common law, the mischief rule is now of limited use. In its place is the purposive approach; adopted from the European Court of Justice via the European Communities Act. Here, the courts try to determine the purpose behind a statute, then interpret the wording in light of this. It is, essentially, the mischief rule for modern legislation.
In addition to the four main rules of statutory interpretation, the courts will also look at the intrinsic and extrinsic aids available to them.
Extrinsic aids are documents outside of the statute itself, including other statutes and explanatory documents, such as:
Intrinsic aids include any portion of the statute that defines terms or relates to any special meaning being given to everyday words. In addition, there are three latin phrases that give guidance on how lists of words should be interpreted:
The interpretation of statutes is a complex area of English law and also an essential one. Without these rules, it would soon become impossible to not only understand the law but even just to apply it, as new situations are always coming to light which Parliament and the courts could not have foreseen when the law was developed.
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Definitions for Statutory Interpretation are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:
This glossary post was last updated: 5th March, 2020