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Statutory Interpretation

Statutory interpretation: In fulfilling their task of applying the law to the facts before them, the courts frequently have to interpret (i.e. decide the meaning of) statutes. Whilst it is true to say that the intention of Parliament should prevail, the courts have adopted a number of conventional practices to resolve ambiguities. An overriding requirement is now contained in the Human Rights Act 1998 in that, so far as it is possible to do so, legislation must be read to give effect in a way which is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Whilst Parliament may make laws, judges interpret them. The operation of the court process may therefore be of great significance in the manner in which an Act operates.

Acts must be read as a whole. The court will therefore look at:

  • The long title of the Act to ascertain the object of the Act. For example, the long title for the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 is:
'An Act to make provision for grants and other assistance for housing purposes and about action in relation to unfit housing; to amend the law relating to construction contracts and architects; to provide grants and other assistance for regeneration and development and in connection with clearance areas; to amend the provisions relating to home energy efficiency schemes; to make provision in connection with the dissolution of urban development corporations, housing action trusts and the Commission for New Towns; and for connected purposes.'


  • Punctuation and headings to a section or group of sections - but only to determine the purpose, not the scope, of the section
  • Schedules listing repeals and setting out transitional arrangements

The court can also consider a number of extrinsic factors. These include dictionaries, reports of committees of the Law Commission, and judicial precedent. Since the case of Pepper v Hart (1992) the court has been able to refer to reports of debates or proceedings in Parliament. Lastly, Parliament has itself passed an Act, the Interpretation Act 1978, which sets out the meaning of words which shall apply unless a contrary intention is expressed or implied in a particular statute. For example, the Act provides that 'words importing the masculine gender shall include females' and words in the singular shall include the plural and vice versa.

There are also a number of presumptions that the court will take into account in ascertaining the intentions of Parliament. These include:

  • A presumption against retrospective effect of legislation
  • A presumption against alteration of the law
  • A presumption against the Crown being bound

If there is still no clear indication of what the words mean then the court will apply certain rules that have evolved out of the courts themselves. Unfortunately, the courts have not always taken a consistent approach to this task. Instead they have taken at times radically different approaches.

The first of these approaches is known as the 'Literal Rule'. Under this rule, words must be interpreted according to their literal, ordinary and natural meaning - see IRC v Hinchy (1960). Some sub-principles should be mentioned:

  • Where a list of specific things is followed by a general expression, the general expression is limited to things of the same genus as the specific things listed. So, if a statute refers to 'bricks, concrete, timber, plaster and other materials' the phrase 'other materials takes its meaning from those items specifically mentioned and so would mean 'building materials'.
  • Where one thing is expressly mentioned it excludes something not expressly mentioned. So, in the above example, if the statute referred merely to 'bricks and concrete' this would serve to exclude other types of building materials.

In the case of ambiguity, the literal rule cannot apply. Therefore a second principle may be employed. This is known as the 'Purposive Approach'. Under this rule words are interpreted not only in their ordinary sense but also with reference to their context and purpose. This differs from the literal approach in that while the court starts with a consideration of the literal meaning it can depart from that meaning where not to do so would give rise to a meaning contrary to the purpose of the statute.

Thirdly, there is the Mischief Rule (otherwise known as the rule in Heydon's case). Whilst this is in reality another way of expressing the Purposive Approach, the court takes into account four questions when applying this principle:

  1. What was the law before the Act was passed?
  2. What was the mischief or defect for which the law had not provided?
  3. What remedy had Parliament resolved and appointed to cure the mischief?
  4. What was the reason for the remedy?

It should be noted that statutory interpretation does not extend to reading words into the statute to rectify or change an Act. It is generally held that the courts cannot fill in the gaps. 'If a gap is disclosed the remedy lies in an amending Act' as for a judge to do otherwise is a 'naked usurpation of the legislative function under the thin disguise of interpretation'.(per Lord Simonds, Magor & St Mellons RDC v Newport Corporation (1952))