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Interpretation of Statutes


Literal Rule

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Golden Rule
Last updated: 08-Jul-2015

Per Lord Ellenborough in Doe, on The Several Demises of William, Elizabeth, and John, Usher, against Samuel Jessep [1810] EngR 239; (1810) 12 East 288 at p.293:

But is there not a rule of common sense as strong as any case can be, that words in will are to be construed according to their natural sense, unless some obvious inconvenience or incongruity would rest from so construing them.

In Warburton v Lovelan (1828), 1 Hud. & B. 623 Burton J said:

However, it is, for the present, sufficient to say, that no necessity for adopting it is shown; and I apprehend it is a rule in the construction of statutes, that, in the first instance, the grammatical sense of the words is to be adhered to. If that is contrary to, or inconsistent with any expressed intention, or any declared purpose of the statute; or if it would involve any absurdity, repugnance, or inconsistency in its different provisions, the grammatical sense must be modified, extended, or abridged, so far as to avoid such an inconvenience, but no farther.

In Becke v Smith (1836) 2 M&W 192 per Parke J at p. 195:

It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience but no further.

Per Lord Wensleydale in Grey v Pearson (1857) 6 HLC 61 at p.106:

In construing all written instruments, the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity, or some repugnance or inconsistence with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity and inconsistency, but no further.

In Motteram v The Eastern Counties Rly Co. (1859), 7 C.B. N.S. 58, 141 E.R. 735 at 744. Willes J expressed his views as follows:

Even if that were not the true grammatical construction of the statute, I apprehend it would nevertheless be necessary so to construe it; because, if the giving a strict grammatical construction to a statute leads to any repugnance or absurdity, – in the sense of being contrary to the mind and intention of the framers of the act, – we are bound so to read the words as to avoid that result.

In River Wear Commissioners v Adamson [1877] 2 AC 743 per Blackburn J:

I believe that is it not disputed that what Lord Wensleydale used to call the golden rule is right, vis, that we are to take the whole statute together, and construe it all together, 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, which though less proper, is one which the Court thinks the words will bear.

In Abel v Lee (1871) L.R. 6 C.P. 365, 23 L.T. 844 Willes J said:

No doubt the general rule is that the language of an Act of Parliament is to be read according to its ordinary grammatical construction, unless so reading it would entail some absurdity, repugnancy or injustice.

In Cox v Hakes (1890) 15 App. Cas. 502 at p. 542 Lord Field said:

Now the admitted rule of construction, from which I am not at liberty to depart, lay down that I cannot infer an intention contrary to the literal meaning of the words of a statute, unless the context, or the consequences which would ensue from a literal interpretation, justify the inference that the Legislature has not expressed something which it intended to express, or unless such interpretation (in the language of Parke B. in Becke v Smith (1836) 2 M&W 192 leads to any manifest "absurdity or repugnance" …

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