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Golden Rule

Interpretation of Statutes


Rules of Construction

Literal Rule
Last updated: 06-Oct-2014

The literal rule was criticised by Lord Esher in The Queen v The Judge of the City of London Court [1892] 1 Q.B. 273:

Now, I say that no such rule of construction was ever laid down before. If the words of an Act are clear, you must follow them, even though they lead to a manifest absurdity. The Court has nothing to do with the question whether the legislature has committed an absurdity. In my opinion, the rule has always been this - if the words of an Act admit of two interpretations, then they are not clear; and if one interpretation leads to an absurdity, and the other does not, the Court will conclude that the legislature did not intend to lead to an absurdity, and will adopt the other interpretation. If the learned judge meant to say that, when the meaning of general words is (if you look at them by themselves) clear, that determines their construction at once, even though from the context - from other parts of the same Act - you can see that they were intended to have a different meaning; if he meant to say that you cannot look at the context - at another part of the Act - to see what is the real meaning, then again I say he has laid down a new rule of interpretation, which, unless we are obliged to follow it in the particular case, I would not follow.

Duport Steel v Sirs [1980] 1 All ER 529, per Lord Diplock at p.541:

Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they consider the consequences of doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral.

In Oliver Ashworth (Holdings) Ltd v Ballard (Kent) Ltd [1999] 2 All ER 791 per Laws LJ at p.805:

By way of introduction to the issue of statutory construction I should say that in my judgment it is nowadays misleading – and perhaps it always was – to seek to draw a rigid distinction between literal and purposive approaches to the in-terpretation of Acts of Parliament. The difference between purposive and literal construction is in truth one of degree only. On received doctrine we spend our professional lives construing legislation purposively, inasmuch as we are enjoined at every turn to ascertain the intention of Parliament. The real distinction lies in the balance to be struck, in the particular case, between the literal meaning of the words on the one hand and the context and purpose of the measure in which they appear on the other. Frequently there will be no opposition between the two, and then no difficulty arises. Where there is a potential clash, the conventional English approach has been to give at least very great and often deci-sive weight to the literal meaning of the enacting words. This is a tradition which I think is weakening, in face of the more purposive approach enjoined for the interpretation of legislative measures of the European Union and in light of the House of Lords’ decision in Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Hart [1993] 1 All ER 42, [1993] AC 593

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