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Statutory Interpretation - canons of interpretation/construction

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Canons of interpretation/construction are used by the courts to reach the intention of Parliament, or at least the meaning of words used in a statute.


There is no difference between a canon and a rule, except the word canon is preferred because the “rules” are not really rules because the judge can ignore them, they are simply aids.
Canon comes from Greek word meaning a reed that grows straight enough to be used as a measuring rod.


No retrospective effect

It is presumed that an Act does not act retrospectively unless so stated specifically.


Exceptions to retrospective effect

It is presumed that an Act does not bind the Crown


Notable exception the Human Rights Act 1998 s 22 whole Act binds the crown.

Gaps and omission are ‘ultra vires’

Parliamentary draftsmen are deemed to know the law and not intentionally to make errors.


INCO Europe v First Choice Distribution (2000) HL

To correct a plain error by the draftsman, the Arbitration Act 1996, should be read as excluding only certain appeals to the Court of Appeal from decisions of the High Court.


Criminal liability requires mens rea

This rule applies particularly to common law offences, it is recognised that many statutory offences are written specifically to exclude mens rea, e.g. most motoring offences.


Sweet v Parsley [1970] HL

Lord Diplock:

The courts will not easily ‘infer an intention of Parliament to create offences for which an honest and reasonable mistake was no excuse’.


B (A Minor) v DPP [2000] HL.

Picture of a boy

A 15 year old boy incited a girl under 14 to commit an act of gross indecency could not be convicted because the wording of the section was silent as to mens rea.

R v K [2001] HL

D aged 26 committed indecent assault on 14yr old girl.


R v Blake, R v [1997] CA

This presumption can be rebutted where for example the statute is concerned with an issue of public safety. So D was convicted of broadcasting without a licence because the broadcasts could have interfered with the emergency services and air traffic controllers.


Value to be given when property is confiscated


Seizure of assets of criminals


No extraterritorial effect

Most Acts of Parliament are directed at the actions UK subjects within the UK.


There are exceptions

The Common Law remains unchanged unless expressly stated by the Act of Parliament

Fisher v Bell (1961)

A flick knife displayed in a shop was not ‘offered for sale’. It is presumed the draftsmen know technical legal language and so the common law expression was not altered.


Supremacy of Parliament

Parliament does not lightly take the exceptional course of delegating to the executive the power to amend primary legislation.


"Rules" or "Canons" of Interpretation - needed to correct imperfections in drafting


Natural and ordinary meaning given to words in statutes.

Abbey v Dale (1951)

"If the precise words are clear and unambiguous, in or judgment we are bound to construe them in their ordinary sense, even though it do lead, in our view of the case, to and absurdity or manifest injustice."

Pinner v Everett [1969] HL

Lord Reid’s

Natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute’.


R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892)

"…the court has nothing to do with whether the legislature has committed absurdity…"

R v Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Ex parte Blood [1996]

No room for doubt - permission has to be in writing. Mrs Blood wanted to use dead husband's sample. Refused.

R v Monks

Booby trap wired up to window.

Held: Not a mantrap.


Tarr v Tarr (1971)

Statute gave power to regulate but not prohibit occupation of matrimonial home.

Lord Pearson:

"In the end one has to read the enactment in its context and come to a conclusion as to what it means."

Sussex Peerage Case (1844)

Tindal CJ;

"… the only rule for the construction of Acts of Parliament is, that they should be construed according to the intent of the Parliament which passed the Act. If the words of the statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous, then no more can be necessary than to expound those words in their natural and ordinary sense. The words themselves alone do, in such case, best declare the intention of the lawgiver."

Cutter v Eagle Star Insurance Co Ltd [1998] HL

C burnt by lighter fuel. The meaning of "road" did not include a car park.

Fisher v Bell (1961)

A flick knife displayed in a shop was not ‘offered for sale’. It is presumed the draftsmen know technical legal language and so the common law expression was not altered.


London and North Easter Railway v Berriman (1946)

Interpreting the Fatal Accidents Act. Topping up oil boxes was not ‘repairing or relaying’ lines so widow did not recover when her husband was killed.


Harris, R v (1836)

Interpreting the offence of ‘unlawfully and maliciously…to stab, cut or wound…’ did not include biting off his nose.


Whitely v Chappel (1868)

D could not personate a dead person because a dead person is not entitled to vote.


Golden - a product of the 19th Century

Used when literal rule might produce an absurdity or repugnant result.


Becke v Smith (1836)

Parke B:

"It is a very useful rule, in the construction of a statute, to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used... unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature, to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified, so as to avoid such inconvenience, but no further."

Grey v Pearson (1857) HL

Clipart man voting

Lord Wensleydale

"The ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless it would lead to absurdity, when the ordinary sense may be modified to avoid the absurdity but no further"’

The River Wear Commissioners v Anderson (1877)

‘We are to take the whole of the statute together and construe it altogether, giving the words their ordinary signification, unless when so applied they produce an inconsistency, or an absurdity, or inconvenience, so great as to convince the court that the intention could not have been to use them in their ordinary signification, and to justify the court in putting on them some other signification, which, though less proper, is one which the court thinks the words will bear.’

Allen, R v (1872)

Bigamist cannot ‘marry’ again.


Re: Sigsworth (1953)

D murdered mother, repugnant that ‘issue’ should inherit estate.

Principle applied here was that of ‘public policy’, which prevents a murderer, reaping the fruits of his crime.


Registrar General (ex parte Smith), R v (1991) CA

The applicant in this case was refused a copy of his birth certificate because he was likely to murder his mother.

Duport Steels Ltd v SIRS (1980) HL

In interpreting the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 which gave immunity to union members committing torts in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute,

Lord Diplock;

‘Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous, it is not for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they themselves consider that the consequences of doing so would be inexpedient or even unjust or immoral’.

Mischief Rule

[Rule in Heydons’s Case (1584)]

Discovers the mischief the Act intended to put right.  Not a product of modern times.


Jones v Wrotham Park Settled Estates [1979] HL

Lord Diplock’s three circumstances:

1. If it is possible to determine from the Act the precise mischief that the Act was to remedy;

2. If it was an accident that the mischief had not been resolved by the Act’s literal meaning; and

3. If it is possible to say with certainty what additional words would have been inserted by draftsmen and approved by Parliament.

Smith v Hughes (1960) QBD

Clipart woman

The ‘mischief’ this Act was trying to control was that of prostitutes openly soliciting customers in the street, the prostitute was sitting in a house and tapping on a window to attract the attention of men walking by.

Held: the aim of the Act was to enable people to walk along the street without being solicited and even though the prostitute was not in the street herself, the Act should be interpreted to include this activity.

Gardiner v Sevenoaks RDC (1950)

‘Cave’, Act intended to keep workers and others safe from combustible film, therefore cave is a premise.


DPP v Bull [1994] DC

Common prostitutes loitering in a street or public place did not include men; the Wolfenden Report, which led to the Act, clearly saw the relevant mischief as one created by women.


R v Chief Constable of Kent (ex parte the Police Federation)  (1999)

Whether the review of a detained person at a police station was in the presence of the detainee if done by video link.


Held: Parliament had intended a face-to-face review.


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