Approaches to statutory interpretation by the judiciary Essay

The problem set is approaches to statutory interpretation by the judiciary. In theory, parliament is the supreme law-making authority in the land. However, it is up to judiciary to interpret laws and as such they can often modify a law beyond what was originally intended, therefore setting a precedent and arguably “making” a law. Statutory interpretation concerns the role of judges when trying to apply an Act of Parliament to an actual case. Language used in statues can cause problems, for example the word may not be very clear in the context of the sentence, it could be that the word is particularly old in light of todays context or it could mean that the parliament hasn’t foreseen certain situations that may arise in the future because of new development or new technologies.

An example of where the language was unclear can be seen in the case of Twining v Myers (1982), where court had to decide whether roller skates amounted to a “vehicle”.

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It can be a difficult process for the judiciary of fully understanding what parliament meant to achieve or what they intended. As a result, there has been a development of there in how words in statues can be interpreted.

The literal rule says that the judges must apply the law literally – using the words in statute in their ordinary signification. 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. An example case where the literal was used is Whiteley v Chappell (1898). The facts of the case were that defendant was charged under a statute where it was an offence to impersonate “any person entitled to vote”. The defendant had pretended to be a person whose name was on voter’s list, but had died. In applying the literal meaning of the words in the statue, the defendant couldn’t be found guilty because dead people, literally speaking, aren’t entitled to vote so the defendant got away with it even though it was an absurd result.

An advantage of the literal rule is that it prevents unelected judges from making law, by keeping to the literal rule it means that the judges don’t enter that dangerous position of moving away from what parliament intended and creating laws that otherwise would not have exist. The literal rule also makes the law more certain and easier to understand. However, not every act is perfectly drafted. For instance, in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 there was confusion over the words “type” and “breed”. Additionally, not every act covers every situation. There are new developments in societies that wouldn’t have been foreseen. Words may have more than one meaning and the act be unclear as words change overtime. Literal rule can lead to an absurd, unfair or unjust decision. This can be seen in London & North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman (1946), where a widow was denied compensation because the Fatal Accidents Act stated that a lookout man must only be provided “for the purposes of relaying or repairing” as oppose to oiling.

The golden rule was developed to tackle the absurd, unfair and unjust situations arising from the application of literal rule. This rule allows judges a little more leeway, allowing judges to refer to various other documents around the statute such as the report of Parliamentary commissions to aid understanding of the statute. There are two approaches to the golden rule – the narrow application and the wider application. The narrow application of the golden rule can be seen in the case Alder v George (1964). Official Secrets Act 1920 made it an offence to obstruct Her Majesty’s Forces “in the vicinity” of a prohibited place. The defendants obstructed HM Forces in a prohibited area but they argued they were not guilty as literal wording of Act did not apply as “in the vicinity” means outside but close to it. However, the court found them guilty to avoid an absurd result, stating it should be read as “in or in the vicinity of” the prohibited.

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