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Legal System | Statutory Interpretation

Construction: Literal Rule

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  • giving unambiguous words in statute a literal meaning even if produces an otherwise unjust or undesirable outcome

    Sussex Peerage Case (1844)

    • Tindal CJ: The only rule for construction of Acts of Parliament is that they should be construed according to the intent of the Parliament which passed the Act. If the words of the Statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous, then no more can be necessary than to expound those words in that natural and ordinary sense. The words themselves alone do, in such a case, best declare the intention of the law giver.

    R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892)

    • Lord Esher: If the words of an Act are clear then you must follow them even though they may lead to a manifest absurdity. The court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity.

    Duport Steel v Sirs (1980)

    • Lord Diplock: Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not then for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they consider the consequences for doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral.


  • a literal approach has been taken in a number of controversial cases

    Abley v Dale (1851)

    • Jervis CJ: If the precise words used are plain and unambiguous, in our judgment we are bound to construe them in their ordinary sense, even though it does lead to an absurdity or manifest injustice.

    Whitley v Chappell [1868]

    • D impersonated a dead person in order to vote
    • it is illegal to impersonate any person entitled to vote
    • a dead person is not entitled to vote
    • D was acquitted

    LNER v Berriman (1946)

    • C widow of a railway worker made compensation claim
    • her husband was killed by a train when carrying out track maintenance
    • by statute compensation only available when relaying or repairing tracks claim failed
  • more recently the courts have affirmed the relevance of the literal rule

    Pinner v Everett [1969]

    • Lord Reid: In determining the meaning of any words or phrase in a statute, the first question to ask is always what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word in its context in the statute.


Parliamentary supremacy

  • intention of Parliament is best found in the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used
  • to give non-literal meaning to words of Act upholds the will of Parliament

Highlights inadequacies

  • decisions can highlight poorly drafted
  • cases can lead to legislation being revised

    Partridge v Crittenden [1968]

    • D advertised some species of protected birds for sale Protection of Birds Act 1954: illegal to offer for sale protected birds
    • under contract law an advert is an invitation to treat not an offer for sale
    • D not guilty


  • people can read law & determine meaning
  • promotes certainty & reduces litigation

Law Commission Report on Interpretation of Statutes (1969)

  • Literal Approach: ... encourages precision in drafting. Also noting, should any alternative approach be adopted, an alteration of the statutory language could be seen as a usurpation by non-elected judges of the legislative function of Parliament, and other statute users would have the difficult task of predicting how doubtful provisions might be rewritten by the judges..


Limitations of language

  • fails to recognise English language is ambiguous and words may have different meanings in different contexts

Limitations of drafting

  • drafting may not be literally precise as meaning seems so obvious

    Stock v Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd (1978)

    • held dismissal of employees who take part in a strike did not include dismissal of employees taking part in a strike
    • Viscount Dilhorne: When the language of a statute is plain it is not open to the court to remedy a defect of drafting.


  • inflexible approach cannot deal with new circumstances not envisaged when Act was passed
  • even if it clearly would apply if circumstance was known or foreseen at the time of passing

Parliament must rectify errors

  • costly & time consuming when meaning may be clear already

Parliamentary supremacy

  • assumes Parliament intended for a literal reading of the Act

Creates absurdities, loopholes and injustices

  • makes it possible to exploit semantics

    Procter & Gamble v HMRC [2008]

    • C (manufacturer of Pringles) claimed D (HMRC) had wrongly charged VAT on product
    • VAT Act 1994: 17.5% VAT to be paid on potato crisps, potato sticks, potato puffs and similar products made from the potato, or from potato flour, or from potato starch
    • held product not potato crisps because less than 50% potato content & made from dough
    • also distinguished from crisps by packaging & unnatural shape
    • C won & Pringles not subject to VAT

Not always possible

  • may require use of an another rule or aid to interpretation
  • eg. there may be more than one possible dictionary definition

Law Commission Report on Interpretation of Statutes (1969)

  • Judges have tended excessively to emphasise the literal meaning of statutory provisions without giving due weight to their meaning in wider contexts. To place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of the words is to assume an unattainable perfection in draftsmanship. It ignores the limitations of language.
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