There are several rules of statutory interpretation evolved over time. Most often discussed are literal rule, golden rule, mischief rule and purposive rule. English language in legislation is often inaccurate and ambiguous giving rise to different interpretations other than the intended meaning of the statutes and leading to guilty getting not punished and deserving denied justice by applying some of the above said rules of interpretation.
Some of the trivial issues like “he or his” meaning “she or her” also, singular denoting plural also are now covered by the Interpretation Act 1978. The first three rules said above are generally seen in elementary law text books and they have not been very helpful in helping the judges to decide according to the legislative intentions. The rules are explained below.
The Literal Rule
This rule implies that words that require interpretation are given their dictionary meaning. For example, in the case of London and North Eastern Railway Co v Berriman (1946), the widow of the deceased due to an accident was denied compensation as the Fatal Accidents Act 1864 allowed compensation for fatal accidents while involved in ‘ relaying or repairing’. But the deceased had been oiling which according to the court was not relaying or repairing of the track but maintenance of it and therefore his widow was denied compensation.
Though this way interpretation facilitates faster decisions since meaning can be found easily from the dictionary and gives supremacy to the parliament which legislated the act, it results in incongruous decisions just because the words of the acts as in the present act are clear and unambiguous though legislative intentions may not be the same. In such cases the judges expect parliament to make necessary changes in the relevant Act if need be and restrict themselves to the literal meanings alone. .
The Golden Rule
As a variation to the literal rule, Golden rule has two ways of approach, one ‘narrow’ and another ‘wide’. The former is narrowing down to the nearest meaning from variety of meanings available. It can be illustrated by what was decided in R v Allen (1872). The question was about the meaning of the word ‘marry’. The court found that two meanings could be attributed to it. One was legally binding relationship with another and the second, undergoing the ceremony. Since the judge felt that the first meaning would give a way to escape responsibility of bigamy, it narrowed down the meaning to performance of a marriage ceremony.
On the other hand, the latter ‘wide approach’, is adopted if literal meaning of the word would result in ridiculous outcome. Thus in Re Sigsworth (1935), wherein mother had been murdered by her son, her estate would still be inherited by him if the literal meaning of the word ‘next of kin’ was followed by the court. As the court felt that it was an undesirable outcome, it adopted a different approach as a wide one to deny son the inheritance.
The Mischief Rule
This helps in examining the scenario before the amending of an Act in question. Thus in a case involving Street Offences Act 1959 which envisaged punishing of prostitutes for soliciting or wandering on the street or at a public place for prostitution, the six accused prostitutes argued that that they had not been on the street as they had actually been inside a house and attracting attention by tapping the windows or shouting out.
The court in this case examined the purposes for which the Act was amended. It was for the purpose of stamping out prostitution on the streets so that passers by could freely walk on the streets without being harassed by the prostitutes. Hence court decided that even this way of soliciting by attracting people on the streets was desirable to be covered and decided accordingly. This is called mischief rule since court went backwards to recall the purpose for which the Act was amended without being guided by the literal meaning of the words in the Act even though they were precise and unambiguous.
This rule aids in promoting legislative intent as decided by Lord Denning MR in Notham v London Borough of Barnet (1978). The judge will make comparison of the reading of the provisions in question on the basis of grammar and literal meaning with those readings of the legislative purpose. In 1993, Lord Browne-Wilkinson while deciding Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Hart, observed that courts have started adopting the purposive approach so as to give effect to the legislative intent behind passing of the Acts.
In the case of Jones v Tower Boot Company Ltd (1997), purposive approach was adopted. The complainant alleged racial discrimination by his employers who were liable under s 32 of Race Relations Act 1976 if proved guilty. The court felt that unless purposive approach was followed, legislative intent could not be achieved and hence decided that employers were liable under s 32 for having followed racial discrimination in the course of employment.
In the given case of Vehicles in City Centres Act, it is desirable that purposive approach be adopted. In this case, the legislative intent was to achieve safe and unpolluted space within the city. Thus Charles who went into the City in his motorised wheel chair has to be found not guilty since he had no means of walking unlike others. Those who could walk, if had come in motorised vehicles could be found guilty and not
Charles who could not walk at all. If it is his fundamental right to use the wheel chair, the Act to that extent should serve this purpose. On the other hand, if he had not been a disabled person and used the wheel chair just to circumvent the Act, still purposive approach could be useful to find him guilty because of the legislative intent of preventing pollution.
The Judge could even go further by making the Act to that extent invalid if it does not provide for emergency situations of allowing ambulances using the purposive approach as declaring it as unconstitutional for violating certain fundamental rights of the citizens. There is one more wording “knowingly” which means in case Charles is disabled, can plead ignorance and pray for relief.
This literally means ‘the reason for the decision’ A rule of law or reasoning is formulated by a judge in deciding case is called ratio decidendi. It is the essence from the facts of the case in question. In other words, it is a legal principle derived from facts of the case based on which a decision is arrived at. Generally ratio decidendi comes into play when there are remote possibilities for which some one is held responsible. Thus when a land lord is proceeded against by his tenant for compensation for the injury sustained because of his fall from the staircase, the former cannot be held responsible as falling is remote possibility unless the staircase was defective and landlord had known it.
Another example could be from a hypothetical scenario of a dog causing the glass of its owner’s car to break by which a passer-by getting inured in the eye and the latter claiming from the owner for the injury sustained because of his dog’s behaviour. This also is a remote possibility which the owner of the dog could not have foreseen. The court on such occasion comes to the rescue of the defendants to avoid becoming responsible for no fault of theirs. In short, the ratio decidendi is the principle of deciding which should be followed by courts in future decisions in the absence of specific law to that effect. The relevant case in this connection is Donoghue v Stevenson 1932.
In a ratio decidendi, there will be passing references which are not however binding. The casual references are what are known as obiter dicta. Literally, Obiter dicta means ‘a word said while travelling’ or ‘along the way’. Taking above example of the dog causing injury, if the judge had observed that if owner had been aware of the dog’s exciting tendency, he would have been liable for the injury of the plaintiff, the judge’s observation becomes obiter dicta as a passing reference made while deciding the main case.
Thus this reference though not a ratio decidendi can be followed in future decisions if similar cases come which the defendants had been aware of such possibilities. Whilst on the subject, a mention must be made of ‘stare decisis’ which means not to upset the principle that has been established in the absence a specific law to that effect.
How Ratio Decidendi and Obiter dicta can be precedents.
A judicial precedent is a rule that must be adhered to consistently in future by lower courts and the courts of same level unless the same level court judge is confident of overruling the precedent. Hence a ratio decidendi which is the reason for decision must serve as judicial precedent for similar future cases. On the other hand obiter dicta which is said while establishing the ratio decidendi is not binding and therefore need not be judicial precedent. AS Law: Sources of Law and Law Making p 31-39 1 WLR 220 AC 593 2 AII ER 406 Tufal Asif “Statutory Interpretation’ p 3 accessed 31 December 2007 <www.lawteacher.net> http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=208894 http://www.landlordlaw.co.uk/content/CasesExplain.pdf item 6 supra http://www.thekjs.essex.sch.uk/files/Judicial%20Precedent.pdf item 9 supra