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Statutory Interpretation

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Acts of parliament are statutes or legislation made in parliament. They are bill or acts approved by parliament into law. The legislature/parliament passes the bill, but it’s the duty of the judiciary to interpret the law. The legislature has many duties and issues to attend to, this makes it impossible for the parliament to think of all possible scenarios or situations and pass them as acts of parliament into law . The statutes passed by parliament are therefore broad and too general; it’s the due duty of the court judges to apply these statutes to individual situations.

Statutory interpretation is therefore the process by which court judges interpret and apply all legislation or acts of parliament. Interpretation is vital in any case that involves a statute. Some words of the statutes may be too plain, understandable and straightforward, but in most cases, there are ambiguity and vagueness in the wording of the statutes which must be determined and resolved by the judge. The judges determine how statutes should apply in specific cases as there are no legislations that can unambiguously, specifically and clearly address all cases and scenarios.

Legislation may have ambiguities because of a variety of reasons. Words are not perfect symbols of communication. They are vague and change in meaning along with changes in time. Unforeseen circumstances in the future are inevitable, technological improvement, change in culture, and make it extremely difficult to be applied in the existing laws (Elmer, 1983). Some uncertainties in the statutes are added during the process of its enactment, such as catering for some specific interest groups or the need for compromise. The court must therefore determine how the legislation will be enforced.  Statutory interpretation is vital for justice to prevail in the court and to avoid ambiguous rulings. To get the meaning of the statutes, judges apply various tools, approaches and methods of statutory interpretation. There are two statutory aids that the judges use to interpret the statutes. Extrinsic aids which include all things that are not found within the statute. They do not adhere to literalism. Judge may use sources like white papers, dictionaries or the Hansard. Intrinsic aides which consist of all things found anywhere within the statute to be interpreted.

The Three Rules of Statutory Construction

The Literal Rule

This rule is also referred to as the plain meaning rule. This rule dictates that statutes should be interpreted using the normal or ordinary meaning of the language, wording of the statutes, unless the statute explicitly explains some of its specific terms otherwise. Interpretation of the legislation should be determined based on their literal meaning. It means following the ordinal, natural and literal meaning of the words. The literal meaning rule attempts to guide the judges when they face litigation, that changes the meaning of terms not clearly defined, or they are not defined at all in the legislation. According to the literal meaning rule, in case the words in a statute are clear and well defined they must be applied even if the results are undesirable, harsh, or they may not be the real intention of the legislators. Simply plain meaning rule is what the law says instead of what it was meant to say. Some of the advantages of the literal meaning rule according to its great supports who claim that this rule prevent judges from taking sides in political or legislative issues. They also claim that the rule gives precision to the statute drafting process and creates consistency in interpretation.

Those against this rule claim that it can lead to absurd results and may not be relevant if the statute is broad terms are in use. The major problem of this rule according to its critics is that though it sounds very simple, words do not always have prescribed meaning, the ordinal meaning may not be so ordinal at all. Judges have problems getting the real natural, meaning of certain words frequently like in R. v Maginnis, did holding drugs temporarily for someone amount to an intention to supply – it was held ‘Yes’, but all sides claimed that the meaning of supply in that case was the ordinary one, despite the minority definition  being extracted from the dictionary. Ironically, applying the literal rule may overcome the intention of parliament . For example in the case of Whiteley v, Chappel the court concluded reluctantly that Whiteley could not be convicted by the court of impersonation at an election, since the person he had impersonated was dead, following literal statutory construction provision the diseased was not entitled to vote. Surely, this could not have been the parliament intention for the statute. Despite the criticism, Literal rule is the oldest rule of statutory interpretation, and it’s still common and widely used by many judges today

The Golden Rule

The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule; it permits judges when interpreting statutes to depart from their literal or normal meaning of the words if following the words literally, would lead to absurd result.In Grey v. Peardi, this law was defined that the ordinary meaning of the words in a statute will be adhered to the latter, unless it would give absurd results, the ordinary meaning can be modified to avoid absurd results.

The judges are to interpret statutes in a manner that avoided obvious absurdities and inconsistencies. This rule, allows judges, to deviate from the literal meaning of words in a stature, to evade vagueness or ambiguity in the result. Golden rule was applied in the case of Adlery v. George where the terms ‘in the vicinity of’ were rectified to avoid an absurd result

Over time, the rule continues to be more and more refined and it has become precise and effective tool for the judges.  The golden rule may be applied in two ways. Most frequently, it’s applied in a narrow sense, in case there are absurdities and ambiguities in the words. The second instance where the rule is applied is mainly, in a wider sense to avoid obnoxious results, towards public principal policies. Like in the case of Re, Bedford v Bedford, the court applied the second meaning of the word in a statute that stated that, the court should “issue” a person inheritance in particular circumstances. The court avoided an absurd result when it held that someone should not profit from a crime, despite having only one literal meaning of the word “issue”. A son committed suicide after murdering his mother, the court had to rule on who will inherit the estate between the son’s descendants and the mother’s family. The court ruled in mother’s favor, to avoid absurd results. The rule is advantageous because it’s helpful in court to avoid absurd results in case the application of the literal rule will lead to undesired results.  Errors in drafting of the statute have a chance to be corrected.

The major criticism against the golden rule; it does not give judges power to intervene for pure justice incase absurdity lacks in the words of a statute. This rule infringes separation of powers, since judges have the power to alter the meaning of statutes. This rule has been used by many judges in recent history to this day to avoid undesired results when making rulings.

The Mischief Rule

The Mischief rule is a statutory construction that the courts apply in statutory interpretation in an attempt to discover the intention of parliament when making the legislation.  The judges review the mischief in the previous law that made the parliament remedy the law.

The rule was discovered in Heydon’s case, where the court ruled that four points need to be considered when interpreting a statute. First the judge should consider the common law in existence before the legislation; the judge should also consider the mischief and defect the common law did not provide, the remedy made by the parliament and the true reason for the remedy. The golden rule can only be used to interpret a statute that was only passed to remedy a defect in the law.

The intention of the parliament is determined by examining the secondary sources such as law review articles, corresponding statutes, committee reports and treatise. Applying this rule gives judges more discretion than the golden and literal rule, since it allows the judge to determine the intent of parliament. This rule was applied in the case of Smith v Hughes where the street offences act prohibited prostitute to “solicit or loiter” in the street purposely for prostitution. The defendants claimed not guilty because they were not in the “street” they were tapping windows and calling men in the street balconies. The court applied mischief rule when it ruled that the defendants were guilty since the intention of the legislation was to cover and prevent the mischief of harassment by the prostitute.

This rule is so advantageous since it avoids absurd and unjust results in sentencing of the statutes; the rule also abides to the sovereignty of parliament. The rule is by far more satisfactory than the literal and golden rule. The disadvantages and criticism of the mischief rule are; this rule give unelected judiciary too much power which arguably is undemocratic and undermines the supremacy of parliament. It creates uncertainty in laws, making it susceptible to the slippery slope. The modern courts today apply this rule with restriction taking huge regards to the integrity of the legislations.

The Approaches

The Purposive Approach

This approach is almost similar to mischief rule, but emphasizes more on the intention of parliament than the defects in the previous law. This rules effect is felt by the literal rule since parliaments most a times tend to enact its intention. When judges apply purposive approach, somehow they will be engaging in the function of the legislature, contrary to the doctrine of power separation between the three arms of government.

Statutory interpretation purposive approach holds that judges should interpret statutes in the light of the reason behind legislation. It was held in Pepper v. Hart By the House of Lords that court judges should apply purposive approach to interpret legislations, and to find intention parliament, using all legislation sources like Hansard. Purposive approach was also applied in the case of United Kingdom Royal College of nursing v. Department of Health and Social Security, in ruling, the abortion method used was legal since it was not in existence when the parliament passed the act and the method was in accordance with the permitted abortion Act policies.  This approach is so advantageous, since it eliminates absurd results that may result due to ambiguities, in the text of a statute. Criticism of this approach has come from different angles it has been said to supersede legislative comprises. This approach is the most dominant statutory interpretation theory in America today.

The Contextual Approach

Judges using this approach determine the extent of words in the context of the statute; in case the words could lead to absurd results the second meaning of the word is applied.  The judge therefore can refer to the implied (ellipsis). He has limited power to remove/add/alter words to avoid absurd/unreasonable/unintelligible clauses or those that are non reconcilable with other statutes. The judge can read up words that he considers, they are implied necessarily and use the limited power bestowed to him to alter, add or ignore some statutory words to avoid repugnance or absurd provisions. To apply this rule, the judge has the option to use statutory aids like Hansard and presumptions.

In conclusion, many people especially law intellectuals are of the view that there are no rigid approaches or rules to interpretation of statutes, but the judges combine the different approaches to arrive at a decision. There appears to be a collapsing trend in the use of the literal, golden and the mischief rule, most judges preferring to use a combination of the purposive and contextual approach when interpreting statutes. Today judges use dictionaries, or decision of previous cases that were determined using similar text or words to avoid absurd results when making decision.

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