Applying the Act of Parliament
It could be argued that the broad perception of the general public is
that once a case is brought to a court, all that is required of the
judge is to look up the relevant statute and rule accordingly. In this
essay I intend to dispel this myth, and suggest that the reality is
not so simple. I propose to look at the reasons why interpreting
statutes is not as simple as one may anticipate, and explain the way
the courts have gotten around this fact, whilst considering the aids
that courts use when doing so. As Britain is now a member of the
European Community, I will also highlight some of the changes that
have been necessary when it comes to interpreting our statutes, and
finally consider some possible reforms to combat the problems, which I
will now go on to identify.
Despite the fact that expert draftsmen carefully draw up Acts of
Parliament, there are many occasions in which the courts find that the
implications of a statute for the case before them are not at all
F.A.R. Bennion (Statute Law, 1990) has identified a number of factors,
which may cause this uncertainty:
1. The draftsman may refrain from using certain words that he or she
regards as necessarily implied. The problem here is that the users may
not realise that this is the case.
2. A broad term was used, leaving it to the user to decide what it
3. An ambiguous word or phrase was used on purpose, perhaps because
the provision is politically contentious.
4. The events of the case before the court were not foreseen when the
legislation was produced.
5. The wording is inadequate because of a printing, drafting or other
In any of these cases, the courts must try to discover how Parliament
intended the law to apply to the case before them. Once this is done,
the interpretation given to a statute, or part of one, becomes part of
case law in just the same way as any other judicial decision, and
therefore subject to the same rules of precedent.
How are statutes interpreted?
Parliament has given the courts two main sources of guidance on
statutory interpretation. The Interpretation Act 1978 provides certain
standard definitions of common provisions, such as the rule that the
singular includes the plural and 'he' includes 'she', while
interpretation sections at the end of most modern Acts define some of
the words used within them, as can be seen in the Police and Criminal
Evidence Act 1984. Apart from this very limited assistance, it has
been left to the courts to decide what method to use to interpret
statutes. Three basic methods have been developed, which I will now
discuss in turn below.
The literal rule
This rule gives all the words in a statute their ordinary and natural
meaning, on the principle that the best way to...