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Legal System | Statutory Interpretation

Interpretation: Overview

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  • under separation of powers and Parliamentary supremacy: role of the judges to interpret the law made by executive and legislature

    Duport Steels Ltd v SIRS (1980)

    • Lord Diplock: .. Parliament makes the laws, the judiciary interpret them... it is for Parliament, not for the judiciary, to decide whether any changes should be made to the law as stated in the Act...
    • Lord Scarman: .. If Parliament says one thing but means another, it is not, under the historic principles of the common law, for the courts to correct it... We are to be governed not by Parliament's intentions but by Parliament's enactments..
  • under rule of law: legal certainty is required, underpins interpretation and limits judicial creativity

    Spath Holme (2001)

    • Lord Nicholls: .. Citizens, with the assistance of their advisers, are intended to be able to understand parliamentary enactments, so that they can regulate their conduct accordingly. They should be able to rely upon what they read in an Act of Parliament. This gives rise to a tension between the need for legal certainty, which is one of the fundamental elements of the rule of law, and the need to give effect to the intention of Parliament, from whatever source that (objectively assessed) intention can be gleaned...

    Fothergill v Monarch Airlines Ltd [1981]

    • Lord Diplock: .. it would be a confidence trick by Parliament and destructive of all legal certainty if the private citizen could not rely upon that meaning but was required to search through all that had happened before and in the course of the legislative process in order to see whether there was anything to be found from which it could be inferred that Parliament's real intention had not been accurately expressed by the actual words that Parliament had adopted to communicate it to those affected by the legislation...

    Black Clawson Case [1975]

    • Lord Reid: .. We often say that we are looking for the intention of Parliament, but that is not quite accurate. We are seeking the meaning of the words which Parliament used. We are seeking not what Parliament meant but the true meaning of what they said...


  • meaning of statute should be clear a but this is not always achieved
  • in many cases there is a dispute over meaning of a word or phrase in a statute
  • requires judges to determine exact meaning of particular word or phrase

Problems with Words

  • Words are imperfect and can create problems through certain usage
  • Broad terms

  • Words may be used to cover several possible circumstances
    London and North Eastern Railway Company v Berriman [1946]
    • Mr Berriman was maintaining a railway line and was killed, there was no lookout
    • wife tried to claim compensation
    • regulations stated company should provide a lookout for men relaying or repairing line
    • court looked at specific words in regulation and decided maintaining line was not covered
    • claim failed
  • Ambiguity

  • word may have two or more meanings and it may not be clear which one should be used
    Brock v DPP (1993)
    • confusion over wording of Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
    • whether type and breed meant the same
  • Changes in the use of language

  • meaning of words can change
    Offences Against the Person Act 1861
    • meaning of malicious and grievous has developed over the years
    • specific meaning under the Act, beyond ordinary definition

Problems with Drafting

  • Act of Parliament has a long and multilayered drafting process which can contribute to issues
  • Errors

  • draftsmen may have made mistakes in original Bill which were not identified by Parliament
  • can occur more often when a Bill has been heavily amended
    House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975
    • states enactments .. specified in Schedule 4 to this Act... are repealed
    • no Schedule 4 but there is a Schedule 3titled Repeals
  • New Developments

  • new technology may mean old Act of Parliament does not seem to cover present day situations
    Telegraph Act 1869
    • telephone had not been invented but judges include telephones when dealing with cases under this Act
    Royal College of Nursing v DHSS (1981)
    • nurses carry out abortions using procedures not known when Abortion Act 1967 was passed
  • Specific circumstances

  • legislation can fail to address specific circumstances
    Twining v Myers (1982)
    • whether roller skates amounted to a vehicle
  • Words not used

  • certain words may be regarded as being implied so not used

Role of Interpretation

  • potential for uncertainty so inevitable issues must be resolved by judicial interpretation
  • techniques and guidelines been developed to assist judges - rules of statutory interpretation
  • evolved through common law and are judge made
  • Parliamentary Sovereignty maintained because if Parliament does not like the definition produced by a court, it can choose to amend the statute to make meaning explicit or pass new legislation which overturns the court's decision
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