Notes on Statutory Interpretations

What is Statutory Interpretations?

Statutory Interpretations is the process by which Judges interpret Acts of Parliament. 75% of cases heard by the House of Lords are concerned with statutory interpretation. Statutory Interpretation is the process of reading and applying statutory laws, and judges trying to find out the intention of parliament when passing the law. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in most cases, there is some ambiguity (can be interpreted in more than one way) or vagueness (unclear) in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. An example of where the language was unclear can be seen in the case of Twining v Myers (1982), where court has to decide whether roller skates amounted to a ‘vehicle’.  There may be other cases where the meaning of words change over time, for example the Offences Against a Persons Act 1861 uses the word “malicious” and “grievous” which either would not be used in this modern day and time, or if used have different meanings to which was intended when the Drafts Man of the act write it. Other means of when Statutory interpretations would be needed is when Drafting errors are present in the bill, this happens mostly when bills are rushed in times of emergency.

Problems of interpreting statutes?

The problems with interpreting statues is that Judges have to decide what parliament meant by a particular piece of legislation. In most cases judges correctly judge of what the intentions of parliament was at the time of passing the law and whether it still applies in the present time. However, as you with all methods there are disadvantages. Judges can often miss-interpret the act or legislation. Other factors which may arise as a problem is their ruling must abide with the Human Rights Act and European Law. This may lead to laws not being applied by which parliament intended as it contradicts higher laws which may not have been present at the time of the passing of legislation.

How judges deal with problems of statutory interpretation?

     i.          Presumptions

A judge begins by assuming certain things. These will be taken to be true unless a good argument is given to demonstrate that the presumption should not apply. These presumptions are:

·         That the law has not been changed – unless the act shows a clear intention to change it;

·         That mens rea is required in criminal cases;

·         That parliament has not changed the law ‘retrospectively’ (that the stature does not affect past acts, to make illegal something that was legal at the time it was done).

      ii.            Presumptions of language:

·         Ejusdem generis (of the same kind) – general words following particular words are of the same class: (for example, ‘tradesman, workman, labourer or other person whatsoever’ will only cover person of a similar type). In the case of Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse (1899), the words ‘other place’ were held to mean ‘other indoor place’ because the list referred to a ‘house, office, room or other place’ and the ‘house’, ’office’ and ‘room’ are all indoors.

·         Noscitur a socis (known by the company it keeps) – words derive their meaning from the other words surrounding them (which means words are generally interpreted in the context of the Section and the Act as a whole). i.e. ‘floors,’ in the expression ‘floors, steps, stairs, passages and gangways’ was interpreted to cover floor along which persons walked as opposed to any storage space.

·         Expression unius est exclusion alterius (the expression of one excludes others) – the express reference of one member of a class may exclude other members of the class not so expressed (for example the express reference to ‘coal mines’ may exclude reference to other types of mine.)

Literal Rule

The literal rule requires the judge to give the word or phrase its natural, ordinary or dictionary meaning, even if this appears to be contrary to the intentions of parliament. As Lord Reid said in Pinner v Everett (1969):

“In determining the meaning of any word or phrase in a statute, the first question to ask is always what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute.”

In the case of Whiteley v Chappell (1868) an Act made it offence to impersonate ‘any person entitled to vote at an election.’ The defendant attempted to vote in the name of a decreased person, but the court held no offence had been committed because when ‘any person entitled to vote’ is interpreted literally, it does not include dead people.

Another example is in the case of Fisher v Bell (1961). In this case the defendant displayed flick knives in his shop window. He was charged under The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act (1959). The act made it an offence to ‘sell or offer for sale’ an offensive weapon. In contract law the display of goods in a shop window is not an offer for sale but an invitation to treat; the display of goods thus invites the customer to make an offer to buy the goods. The court found the defendant not guilty despite the obvious aim of the Act being to prevent such behavior.

Golden Rule

This rule allows the court to look at the literal meaning of a word or phrase, but then avoid using a literal interpretation which would lead to absurd result. There are two approaches taken while applying the golden rule, these being the narrow approach and the broad approach.

So under the golden rule, the court takes the literal approach unless it results in great absurdity, inconvenience, or inconsistency, and then it modifies the meaning, within the context of the statute, just as far as is necessary to avoid the absurdity.

The River Wear Commissioners v Anderson (1877)

“we are to take the whole of the statute together and construe it altogether, giving the words their ordinary signification, unless when so applied they produce an inconsistency, or an absurdity, or inconvenience, so great as to convince the court that the intention could not have been to use them in their ordinary signification, and to justify the court in putting on them some other signification, which, though less proper, is one which the court thinks the words will bear.’

An example of narrow approach can be seen in the case of Allen (1872). In this case the defendant married for a second time. He was charged under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which states it is an offence to marry again without the previous marriage being ended by a divorce. Allen argued that is was not possible to be legally married twice, so he could not have committed an offence. This interpretation of the word ‘marry’ would mean that the offence is impossible to commit. The court had to decide whether ‘marry’ means to become legally married to another person, or whether it means to go through a ceremony of marriage. To avoid an absurd result the court adopted the second meaning and held Allen was guilty under the Act.

In the case of Re: Sigsworth (1935), a person who had murdered his mother was allowed to benefit from the proceeds of her estate, when she died without leaving a will. If statutory law had been interpreted literally, the son would have formed the ‘issue’ of the dead woman, and have been able to claim her money. The court felt that they had to modify this, within the context of the statute, on grounds of public policy, to prevent the murderer benefiting from the fruits of his crime.

An example of Broad approach can be seen in the case of Adler v George (1964) the defendant was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1920 with obstructing a member of armed forces ‘in the vicinity of a prohibited place.’ The defendant argued that he was actually in the prohibited place, not in the vicinity of it, that is, near to it. Had the court applied this literal interpretation of the phrase the defendant would not have been guilty. The court therefore interpreted the phrase ‘in the vicinity of’ to include ‘in’ a prohibited place to avoid absurd result.

Mischief Rule

The mischief rule is applied to find out what Parliament meant. It is a contextual method of interpreting statutes, and looks for the wrong, or mischief, which the stature was trying to correct. The statute is then interpreted in the light of this. The rule is an old rule, based on the Heydon’s Case (1584) in which certain steps were indentified as a way to interpretation. It was said that judges should:

·         Consider what the law was before the Act was passed;

·         Identify what was wrong with that law;

·         Decide how Parliament intended to improve the law through the statute in question;

·         Apply that finding to the case before the court.

Broadly speaking, therefore, the rule requires that where an Act has been passed to remedy a weakness or defect in the law, the interpretation which will correct that weakness or defect is the one to be adopted.

An example of where the mischief can be seen in the case of Smith v Hughes (1960). Some prostitutes were accused of soliciting, contrary to the Street Offences Act 1958 which made it offence to ‘solicit in a street…for the purpose of prostitution’. The defendant, along with other prostitutes, sat on a balcony, or inside a building tapping on the window, to attract the attention of men in the street. Interpreted literally, there would therefore be no offence. Applying the mischief rule, it did not matter that the women were not themselves in the street, as they were still soliciting men in the street, which was what the Act was designed to prevent. They were therefore found guilty. Lord parker said, ‘Everybody knows that this was an Act intended to clean up the streets…I am content to base my decision on that ground and that ground alone’.

Purposive Approach

The purposive approach focuses on what Parliament intended when passing the new law. The purposive approach is a modern version of the mischief approach.

In Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Harts (1993) Lord Browne-Wilkinson said: “the fine distinction between looking for the mischief and looking for the intention in using words to provide the remedy are technical and inappropriate.'

The purposive approach: the court looks at the purpose of the statute and interprets the words to bring about that purpose.

An example of purposive approach can be seen in the case of Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Harts (1993) where the issue was how to interpret s63 of the Finance Act 1976. Teachers at an independent school for boys were having their children educated at the school for a fifth of the price charged to the public. This was a taxable benefit based on the ‘cash equivalent’ could be interpreted to mean either the additional cost of providing the concession to the teachers or the average cost of providing the concession to the teachers or the average cost of providing the tuition to the public and the teachers. The House of Lords referred to statements made by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury during the committee stage which revealed that the intention of Parliament to tax employees on the basis of the additional cost to the employer of providing the concession.

Another example can be seen in the case of Jones v Tower Boot Co. (1997). In this case the Court of Appeal had to decide whether the physical and verbal abuse of a young black worker by his workmates fell within ‘the course of employment’ under s32 of the Race Relations Act 1976. The employer had argued that these actions fell outside the course of the workmate’s employment, because such behavior was not part of their job. The Employment Appeal Tribunal could not therefore be held responsible to the young black worker for his workmate’s behaviour. This decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal using the purposive approach to interpret s32. Parliament’s intention when enacting the Race Relations Act was to eliminate discrimination in the workplace and this would not be achieved by applying a narrow construction to the wording.

The purposive approach provides scope for judicial law-making because the judge is allowed to decide what he/she thinks Parliament intended the Act to say rather than what the Act actually says.