Statutory interpretation1
notes the procedure that a court focuses at a statute and establishes what it
means. A statute, which is a bill or law passed by the legislature, forces duty
and rules on the people. Although they make the law, statutes may be open to clarification
and have ambiguities. The judiciary may apply rules of statutory
interpretation both to an enactment by the legislature and to representative
legislation such
as administrative agency regulations, in common law authorities.

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Statutory interpretation first became notable in common law systems, with
England being the ideal example. In Roman and Civil law, a statute or code directs
the magistrate, but there is no previous legal case. In Britain, Parliament
historically were unsuccessful to enact a complete code of legislation, which
is the reason why the courts were left to develop the common law; and having
decided a case and the cause of the decision, it would become binding on later

Judges in England generally apply three basic rules of
statutory interpretation, and similar rules are also used in other common law
jurisdictions. The literal rule, the golden rule and
the mischief rule. Although judges are not bound to apply these
rules, they generally take one of the following three approaches, and the
approach taken by any one particular judge is often a reflection of that
judge’s own philosophy.

Primary Rules

Literal Rule 

Mischief rule

Golden rule 

Secondary Rules

Reddendo Singula Singulis

Noscitur a sociis

Ejusdem Generis

The judiciary interprets
how legislation should apply in a particular case as no legislation straightforward
and particular that addresses all circumstances. The court must try to
determine how a statute should be enforced. This requires statutory
construction. It is a tenet of statutory construction that the legislature is
supreme when creating law and that the court is merely an interpreter of the
law. Nevertheless, in practice, by performing the construction the court can
make sweeping changes in the operation of the law.


The literal rule

The literal rule is the ordinary meaning or the plain meaning rule.
It is the task of the court to give a statute’s words their literal meaning
regardless of whether the result is sensible or not. The literal rule is often
applied by orthodox judges who believe that their constitutional role is
limited to applying laws as enacted by Parliament. Such judges are
wary of being seen to create law, a role which they see as being strictly
limited to the elected legislative branch of government. In
determining the intention of the legislature in passing a particular
statute, this approach restricts a judge to the so called black letter of
the law. The literal rule has been the dominant approach taken for over
100 years.

Fisher v Bell (1960)


The golden rule

The golden rule (also: the British rule) is an
exception to the literal rule and will be used where the literal rule produces
the result where Parliament’s intention would be circumvented rather
than applied. “The literal rule should be used first, but if it results in
absurdity, the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so
as to avoid absurdity and inconsistency, but no further.”

Adler v George (1964)


The mischief rule

The final rule of statutory interpretation is the
mischief rule, under which a judge attempts to determine the legislator’s intention;
what is the “mischief and defect” that the statute in question has set out
to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this
remedy? The mischief rule for interpreting statutes requires
judges to consider four factors:

1.      What
the law was before the statute was passed;

2.      What
problem (or mischief) the statute was trying to remedy;

3.      What
remedy Parliament was trying to provide

4.      The true reason of the remedy;

Heydon’s case (1584) 3 Co.
Rep. 7a, 7b






As well as these three rules of interpretation, there are
a number of rules that are held to apply when determining the meaning of a

 The statute is presumed not to bind
the Crown

 Statutes do not operate retrospectively in
respect to substantive law (as opposed to procedural law)

 They do not interfere with legal rights
already vested

They do not oust the
jurisdiction of the courts

They do not detract
from constitutional law or international law


Furthermore, there are a number of intrinsic (=interal)
and extrinsic (=external) aids to statutory interpretation.


Intrinsic (Internal)
Aids to Statutory Interpretation

are things found within the statute which help judges understand the meaning of
the statute more clearly.


the long and the short

the preamble

definition sections




Extrinsic (External) Aids to Statutory

are things found outside of the actual statute which may be considered by
judges to help them understand the meaning of a statute more clearly.



historical setting

previous statutes

earlier case law


Law Commission Reports



Wikipedia, ‘Statutory Interpretation’ (Wikipedia, 28 December 2017),
accessed 29 December 2017



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