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Statutory Interpretation in a nutshell. Literal Approach. The Literal Approach gives words their ordinary grammatical meaning LNER v Berriman: Not ‘relaying or repairing’ track but oiling points (maintenance)

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literal approach
Literal Approach

The Literal Approach gives words their ordinary grammatical meaning

LNER v Berriman: Not ‘relaying or repairing’ track but oiling points (maintenance)

  • Leaves law-making to Parliament / respects democracyBUT assumes every Act will be perfectly drafted – Fisher v Bell
  • Makes law more certain BUT can lead to ‘unfair’ decisions or absurd results –LNER v Berriman
purposive approach
Purposive Approach

The Purposive Approach looks for the purpose of Parliament and interprets words accordingly.

Jones v Tower Boot Co: ‘In the course of employment’ included racial harassment that happened at work even though it was not part of the work

  • Leads to justice in individual cases BUT makes law less certain
  • Fills in the gaps in the law BUT leads to judicial law-making
  • Broad approach covers more situations BUT difficult to discover the intention of Parliament

Literal rule – words are given their ordinary grammatical meaning.

  • Whiteley v Chappell: D was found not guilty of impersonating [someone] entitled to vote when he impersonated a dead man, as a dead person is not ‘entitled to vote’.
  • Golden rule – the best interpretation of ambiguous words can be chosen to avoid an absurd result.
  • Allen: ‘Marry’ = ‘go through a ceremony of marriage’. Narrow version.
  • Re Sigsworth: Son not allowed to inherit from mother because he murdered her. Wider version.

Three rules of interpretation

  • Mischief – looks at the gap in law prior to the Act and interprets words to ‘suppress the mischief’.
  • Smith v Hughes: Prostitutes calling from a house to men in the streets were soliciting ‘in a street’.

Ejusdem generis – For a list of words followed by general words, the general words are limited to the same kind of items as those in the list

Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse: all the ‘places for betting’ listed were indoors, so the place mentioned had to be indoors too. It was not and so was not affected by the statute

Expressio uniusexclusio alterius – To mention one thing / some things is to exclude other things. If there is a list, but no general words, then only the items in the list are included

Tempest v Kilner: only ‘goods, wares and merchandise’ were affected by the statute, because only they were mentioned – not stocks or shares

Three rules of language

Noscitur a sociis – Consider the context: words cannot be considered in isolation. They are known by the company they keep

IRC v Frere: ‘interest, annuities or other annual interest’ affected only annual interest, not any other sort

aids to interpretation
Intrinsic aids

Anything within the Act itself:


Long title

Definition sections

Other sections

Objectives section (if there is one)


Extrinsic aids

Matters outside the Act:

Previous Acts on the same point

Earlier case law

Dictionaries, including those of the time when the act was passed

Hansard – Pepper v Hart

Law Commission reports – Black Clawson

International treaties, etc. – Fothergill v Monarch Airlines

Aids to interpretation
step by step problem solving in statutory interpretation
Step-by-step problem-solving in statutory interpretation
  • Define literal approach. Tell the reader it includes three rules of interpretation
  • Try literal, golden and mischief rules in turn
  • If a sensible result is achieved, stop; if absurd, go on to the next
  • Use the rules of language to help you with each rule of interpretation, and possibly internal aids
  • Purposive approach: define
  • Try the purposive approach, using both internal and external aids

NB Always explain fully what you are doing, using case examples