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Much of our law comes from Acts of Parliament. These are also known as statutes and a large number of them are passed by Parliament each year. The law needs to be clear and certain but there are many occasions when the meaning of a statute, or a specific part of it, is the subject of a dispute in a case which comes before the courts. In such cases the court has the difficult task of deciding upon the exact meaning of a particular word or purpose.
The courts are helped in this task by a number of tried and tested rules of statutory interpretation. Judges have their own preferences as to these rules and are free to choose which approach to adopt depending upon the circumstances. The various rules are the literal rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule and the purposive approach.
The literal rule involves applying the 'plain, ordinary, literal meaning’ of words – even if this would lead to a manifest absurdity. Lord Esher in R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892) said ‘if the words of an act are clear then you must follow them even if they lead to a manifest absurdity. The court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity. ’ This is sometimes referred to as the 'dictionary rule' as the judge will be assisted by references to a dictionary as these will give the plain, ordinary meaning of words.
The problem with this is that a definition of any one word can be given a number of different meanings. It is likely that reference will be made to a dictionary in common use at the time such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The literal rule also assumes that the Acts of Parliament have been worded perfectly and precisely.
The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and is used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to an absurd or unjust result. The golden rule gives the judge the opportunity to look at the words in context. 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 wide approach is used when the ordinary meaning of a word is modified.
The use and application of the golden rule can probably be best illustrated by the leading cases of R v Allen (1872) and Adler v George (1964). 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 the 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. He said "It is a cardinal principle in all statutes that you may not attach to a statutory provision a meaning that 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 that you must not go."
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. This is an example of the use of the golden rule where the use of the literal rule fails to overcome the problem of a word having more than one meaning.
This same meaning was definitely preferred in the unusual case of Emily Horne who was convicted of serial bigamy having gone through five 'marriages' without having applied to annul the first marriage.
The broader application of the golden rule, known as the wide approach, can be illustrated by the case of Adler v George 1964. The broader application is where the word in question has one clear meaning but that meaning would lead to an absurd result – in this case the golden rule allows for the modification of the word or words to avoid the problem. In Adler the defendant was charged with obstructing a guard in the execution of his duty after being challenged by a sentry at an 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. This is an example of a judge modifying the literal meaning to avoid absurdity.
Another example of the court’s willingness to modify a word or provision to avoid an absurd result and to ensure Parliament's intentions are adhered to, is the case of Sigsworth (1935). In this case a son had murdered his mother. The mother had not made a will so the estate was to be distributed to her nearest next of kin under the Administration of Estates Act 1925.
This meant that her son should 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.
In answer to the latter part of the question, the courts have developed a number of minor aids which help clarify the meaning of words or phrases. These minor rules come into their own when a sentence has been constructed in a particular way. A description of one of the rules of language could include either of the following:
The ejusdem generis rule – from the Latin, meaning 'of the same kind'. This rule can be applied where general words following specific words set out in a list are found. The question arises as to whether the specific words set out in the list affect in any way the correct interpretation to be placed upon the general words – do they limit the general words in some way? The rule provides that the general words are limited in meaning to the same kinds of things as mentioned in the specific words appearing in the list. For example if a statute applied to tigers, lions, leopards and other animals it could be assumed that a panther would be included as another animal but not a cow. There must be at least two specific words in a list before the general word or phrase, for this rule to operate.
The rule can be best illustrated by looking at some examples. In Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse (1899) The Betting Act 1853 made it an offence to keep a house, office, room or other place for the purposes of betting. The defendant had been using what was known as 'Tattersall's ring' for the purposes of betting. Tattersall's ring was an outside area and the House of Lords had to decide if the statute applied to an outside area. The court found that the general words 'other place' should be interpreted as inside or an indoor place because the other words in the list were all references to places inside and, as he had been operating outdoors, the defendant was found not guilty.
The noscitur rule – The rule of noscitur a sociis means that the meaning of a word is to be found from the context, or a word is known by the company it keeps. The rule therefore involves looking at other words in the same section as the word in dispute or other parts of the Act. The sense or meaning of other words or parts of the Act help with the meaning of the word in question.
The rule can be illustrated by reference to the case of Inland Revenue Commissioners v Frere (1964) where the meaning of the word 'interest' was required. The section in the The Income Tax Act of 1952 referred to ' interest, annuities or other annual interest' to be deducted from the income and the question arose as to whether this meant interest paid daily, monthly or annually. Under the noscitur a sociis rule, the mention of amount of interest related only to annual interest and as the respondent's interest payment was not an annual interest payment he could not deduct it from his income and he had to pay tax on it.
In Muir v Keay (1875) the court considered the Refreshment Houses Act 1860 which dealt with public refreshment, resort and entertainment and the licensing of premises. The courts had to decide how to determine the meaning of entertainment. The defendant argued that his café did not need a licence because he did not provide entertainment. The court held that “entertainment” did not mean musical entertainment but the reception and accommodation of people, so the defendant was guilty.
In Bromley London Borough Council v Greater London Council (1982) other parts of an Act were examined in order to establish the meaning of the word 'economic'. The case concerned the question of whether the GLC were lawfully able to operate a subsidised fare scheme at a loss. The House of Lords ruled that 'economic' meant that the scheme should operate on business lines and that this could not be applied to the scheme in question as it would, by definition, run at a loss.
The expressio rule – Expressio unius est exclusio alterius is derived from the Latin and means 'expressing one thing excludes another'. It is not necessary to add other words to the list in order to make sense of the provision. This rule is said to mean that the mention of one thing excludes another. The effect of this rule means that if a list of words is not followed by general words, the Act only applies to the words used in the list – it is not for the courts to try and second guess that Parliament meant to add other words by association. For example if a statute refers to lions and tigers it only refers to lions and tigers and will not include leopards.
In Tempest v Kilner (1846) the court had to rule whether the Statute of Frauds 1677 applied to the sale of stocks and shares. The Act required contracts for the sale of 'goods, wares and merchandise' to be evidenced in writing if they were above a specified value. The court decided that stocks and shares were not covered by the Act as the specific words 'goods, wares and merchandise' were not followed by general words.
This will not be strictly applied in the event that the Act mentions that the words listed are illustrative by the use of the word 'includes' for example, as this suggests that there may be other items which may apply.
(Word Count 1972)
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