Golden rule

A modification of the literal rule and used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to a ‘manifest absurdity'.

The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and is used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to a ‘manifest absurdity’.

The rule can be used in more than one way. It has two particular applications: a narrow approach and a wide approach.

The narrow approach is used where the meaning of the word which is being interpreted is ambiguous i.e. has more than one meaning.  The judge then applies the meaning which best suits the context in which the word is being interpreted.  The leading cases of R v Allen (1872) and Adler v George (1964) can probably best illustrate the use and application of the golden rule.

The term 'narrow approach’ is a reflection on some judges views on how the golden rule should be used. It suggests that it is more limited and restricted than other rules such as the mischief rule or purposive approach.  It was Lord Reid in Jones v DPP (1962) who reminded us of the importance of not trying to give a meaning to a word used in a statute which goes beyond what is reasonable.

The case of R v Allen (1872) is a good illustration of the narrow approach in use.  In this case the defendant was charged with bigamy under Section 57 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 which made it an offence to ‘marry’ whilst your spouse is still alive and not divorced.  The ambiguous word was the word ‘marry’.  The court decided that in order to make sense of the provision, the word should be interpreted as meaning to go through a second ceremony of marriage.  The word can also mean to become legally married but because someone who is already married cannot legally marry someone else,  the more general meaning of the word was preferred.

The broader application of the golden rule, known as the wide approach, can be illustrated by the case of Adler v George 1964.  The defendant was charged with obstructing a guard in the execution of his duty after being challenged by a sentry at a MOD establishment.  The wording of the relevant provision included the phrase ‘in the vicinity of’.  

The defendant argued that this meant that he could not be charged and convicted because he was actually already inside the establishment whereas ‘in the vicinity’ meant outside or in the proximity or area.  The court decided that this would lead to an absurd result and interpreted the words so as to include the situation which had arisen where the individual was already on the premises.

Another example of the court’s willingness to modify a word or provision to avoid an absurd result is the case of Sigsworth (1935).  A son had murdered his mother and as the mother had not made a will the estate was to be distributed to her nearest next of kin under the Administration of Estates Act 1925.

This meant that her son would have inherited as her ‘issue’.  The court had a problem with this on public policy grounds, in that it was repugnant for a murderer to benefit from the killing.  The court applied the golden rule in preference to the literal rule and interpreted the word ‘issue’ so as to exclude someone who had killed the deceased.



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