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Legal System | Statutory Interpretation

Construction: Golden Rule

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  • modification of the literal rule
  • if the literal rule produces an absurdity, the court should look for another meaning to avoid absurd result

    Grey v Pearson (1857)

    • Lord Wensleydale: ...the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity, or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther...

Narrow application

  • if word is ambiguous least absurd should be used

    Jones v DPP (1962)

    • Lord Reid: It is a cardinal principle applicable to all kinds of statutes that you may not for any reason attach to a statutory provision a meaning which the words of that provision cannot reasonably bear. If they are capable of more than one meaning, then you can choose between those meanings, but beyond this you cannot go.

    R v Allen (1872)

    • Offences against the Person Act 1861 offence of bigamy defined: Whosoever being married, shall marry any other person during the lifetime of his spouse... 1861 shall commit the offence of bigamy
    • literal reading of Act makes bigamy an impossibility as cannot legally marry when still married
    • court interpreted marry to mean going through the ceremony of marriage

Wider application

  • plain meaning is unambiguous but to apply it would cause an absurdity, court will interpret to avoid absurdity

    Re Sigsworth (1935)

    • D murdered his mother who had not made a will
    • Administration of Justice Act 1925: her estate would be inherited by her next of kin (D)
    • no ambiguity but court held next of kin could not inherit if had murdered the deceased

    Adler v George [1964]

    • D gained access inside a RAF base to protest
    • Official Secrets Act 1920: an offence to be protesting in the vicinity of a prohibited place
    • RAF base was a prohibited place
    • D argued as was inside base, therefore not in the vicinity of
    • D convicted by magistrate
  • extended to allow words to be added to statute in order to resolve obvious drafting errors

    INCO Europe v First Choice Distribution (2000)

    • Lord Nicholls: The court must be able to correct obvious drafting errors. In suitable cases, in discharging its interpretative function the court will add words, or omit words or substitute words... This power is confined to plain cases of drafting mistakes. The courts are ever mindful that their constitutional role in this field is interpretative. They must abstain from any course which might have the appearance of judicial legislation. A statute is expressed in language approved and enacted by the legislature.


Avoids absurdities

  • absurdities often caused by poor draftsmanship, as in Allen

Parliamentary supremacy

  • respects exact words of Parliament except in limited situations
  • upholds Parliament's will more than the literal rule, as assumes Parliament never intends to pass absurd law


Law Commission Report on Interpretation of Statutes (1969)

  • Golden rule: .. provides no clear means to test the existence of the characteristics of absurdity, inconsistency or inconvenience, or to measure their quality or extent... a less explicit form of the mischief rule...

Judicial Law Making

  • words can be added (INCO Europe v First Choice Distribution)
  • undemocratic judges power to decide when to interpret the law as being absurd
  • Professor Zander: 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... it is a feeble parachute...
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