The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court’s traditional
approaches to statutory interpretation have been influenced by the UK’s
membership of the European Union and The Human Rights Act 1998; but to what
extent is unclear. The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are the two
highest courts in the UK, the Court of Appeal, which is the lowest of the two
courts, deals with appeals in both criminal offences and civil disputes. The
Supreme Court is the highest court of the two and it deals with final appeals
again in both criminal offences and civil disputes1. The traditional
approaches to statutory interpretation are: the literal rule, the golden rule
and mischief rule; however, in recent years the purposive approach and the
unified contextual approach have both been introduced and used by UK courts2. The UK has been part of
the European Economic Community, now the European Union, since 19733.

The first rule that is going to be explored is the literal
rule. This rule of statutory interpretation is the first rule judges try to
apply when deciding a case4. The literal rule focuses
solely on the actual words of the statue, meaning is to be determined by
application of the rules of parsing and the finding of dictionary definitions5. Lord Diplock said in Duport Steels Ltd v Sirs 1980 “the
role of the judiciary is confined to ascertaining from the words that
parliament has approved as expressing its intention what that intention was and
to give effect to it”6. The application of the
literal rule only considers the words of the statute in search for the
intention of parliament7. An example of the literal
rule been used is in the case of Fisher v
Bell 1961, this case concerned a shopkeeper who displayed in his shop
window a flick knife with a ticket stating, ‘Ejector knife – 4s’8, but because of The
Offensive Weapons Act 1959 it made a flick knife an offensive weapon. S.1 of
the 1959 Act said that “any person who manufactures, sells or hires or offers
for sale or hire”9
a flick knife shall be found guilty of an offence. The prosecution argued that
the knife was offered for sale; however, the defendant said on the facts that
no offer had been made. The court gave the word “‘offer’ a technical legal
meaning by reading the statute against the general law of contract”10; therefore, this case can
be seen as an example of the literal rule.

The second rule used by the UK courts is the golden rule,
this rule may be used where a literal interpretation of the words of the
statute leads to an irrationality or to an inconsistency or repugnance with the
rest of the statute11. The interpretation to be
drawn is that the meaning of the literal rule cannot have been intended by
parliament. Lord Wensleydale made a statement of the rule, which can be found
in the case of Grey v Pearson (1857)
where he said, “the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words of a statute
may be modified to avoid the absurdity in consistency”.12 The court will look at
why parliament passed the legislation in the first place before deciding a case
and deciding which rule to use to avoid absurdity or inconsistency.13 Adler v George 1964 shows how the golden rule may be used because
the defendant, Adler, had entered a Royal Air Force station, a prohibited place14, and due to s.3 of the
Official Secrets Act 1920 it is an offence for a person to be ‘In the vicinity
of any prohibited place’15. On appeal the defendant
argued that he was in the prohibited place not in the vicinity as s.3 of the
1920 Act suggests, it was said that the statute meant to be ‘near’ or ‘close
to’16. Lord Parker CJ
disallowed this interpretation and said that “s.3 was designed to prevent
interference with Her Majesty’s forces when performing duties relating to
security of prohibited places.”17 As can be seen Lord
Parker CJ refers to absurdity to show that the words of the statute cannot
reflect the intention of parliament and words may be necessarily read into the

The third rule of statutory interpretation is the mischief
rule, A formulation of this rule is found in Heydon’s case (1584) where it says, “and it was resolved by them
that for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they
penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law), four things
are to be discerned and considered: 1. What was the common law before the
making of the Act, 2. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law
did not provide, 3. What remedy the parliament hath resolved and appointed to
cure the disease of the commonwealth and 4. The true reason for the remedy; and
then the office of all judges is always to make such construction as shall
suppress the mischief and advance the remedy…”19. The courts were to
interpret an Act to suppress the mischief and give effect to the remedy.
However, there is a problem with this approach which relates to the words of a
statute and the extent to which was acceptable for a court to give a meaning to
the words used that they were not capable of bearing20. An example of the
mischief rule used in a more recent case is Smith
v Hughes 1960, in this case prostitutes where in a house beckoning from
balconies and tapping on windows to attract the attention of men21. The Street Offences Act
1959 s.1(1) states it is “an offence for the common prostitute to loiter or
solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution”.22 It was argued that the
defendants were ‘not in the street’, they were convicted. The problem faced
here is that the Act did not make it clear where the prostitutes have to be
when the solicitation took place. Lord Parker referred to the mischief of the
Act as ‘intended to clean up the streets’ to ensure people could walk the
street without been solicited23.

There is some difference and similarities between the rule
in Heydon’s case and the purposive approach. The rule in Heydon’s case was
specified when the role of parliament was different, its supremacy had not yet
been established24.
The courts were willing to go beyond the wording of a statue to ‘suppress the
mischief and advance the remedy’, they looked at the four corners of the
statute itself not to external sources25. The purposive approach
ensures that the wording of a statute is interpreted in the light of the
underlying purpose.26 The courts look into the
statute and outside of it to discover this purpose; however, there are limits
to the extent in which courts can go beyond the words.

The final approach is the unified contextual approach to
which Sir Rupert Cross identified. He felt that judges in practice use a
combination of these rules in any of these statutory provisions. In  view of a statute the courts must consider
the context in which they are being used, Lord Simon in Maunsell v Olins 1957 explained “statutory language, like all
language, is capable of an almost infinite gradation of ‘register’, it is a duty
of a court of construction to tune in to such register and so to interpret the
statutory language as to give to it the primary meaning which is appropriate in
that register. In other words, statutory language must always be given
presumptively the most natural and ordinary meaning which was appropriate in
the circumstances”27. This makes the point
that the proposed meaning of words depending upon the circumstances in which
they are used. Words may have an ordinary meaning or technical meaning28.

 The Court of Appeal
and the Supreme Court have been affected by the UK’s membership to the EU. The
UK is bound to implement directives of the EU fully, this means that both
primary and secondary legislation must be passed in order to implement a
An illustration of the purposive approach, one of the statutory provisions
explained above, been used in light of a European Council Directive is seen in
the case of Robertson v Swift 2014.
In brief, the facts of this case, a contract was made between Robertson and
Swift after an inquiry for a removal service. After the contract was made and
Robertson had paid the deposit, he wanted to cancel and posted a letter of
cancellation to Swift before the removal date. Swift then claimed cancellation
fees and refused to return the deposit30. The case was decided
under The Cancellation of Contracts made in a customer’s home or work place.
Regulations 2008 shows the right to cancel a contract. On appeal the Court of
Appeal said that these regulations do apply to this case meaning Robertson was
not entitled to cancel the contract, but once again it was appealed to the
Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that the precise approach of
interpretation of the regulations was that general courts are to interpret
domestic legislation ‘so far as was possible, in the light of the wording and
the purpose of directive in order to achieve an outcome consistent with the
objective pursued by the directive’31. The purpose of the
directive is to enhance consumer protection.

The Human Rights act 1998 is “An Act to give further effect
to rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human
Rights; to make provision with respect to holders of certain judicial offices
who become judges of the European Court of Human Rights; and for connected
purposes”.32  This Act places a duty on courts to interpret
legislation to ensure compatibility with European Convention on Human Rights,
s.3 of the act states “so far as possible to do so…” the word ‘possible’ rises
some uncertainty33.
Parliament predicts that some legislation may not be compliant and under s.4 of
the 1998 Act a court has to make a declaration incompatibility, which leads to
limitations of s.334. When legislative
provisions are vague the court must choose a meaning, which is compatible with
Convention Rights, this means the courts roles are changed when convention
rights are raised. An example of where both the Court of Appeal and Supreme
Court had to choose a meaning which could be compatible with the Convention
rights is Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza 2004.
This case showed how both courts had to interpret the Rents Act 1977 to ensure
compatibility with Article 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) of the Human
Rights Act 199835.

Overall, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court’s
traditional statutory interpretation has been affected by the UK’s membership
to the EU and the Human Rights Act 1998. The UK’s membership to the EU has
ensured that all directives are implemented by the UK by having parliament pass
legislation that implements directives fully, this means that when an appeal
case is brought to either court they have to achieve an outcome consistent with
the objective pursued by the directive. The Human Rights Act 1998 places a duty
on courts to ensure they are compatible with the European Convention on Human
Rights. This means when appeal cases are brought to these two courts they have
to ensure when deciding the outcome of a case that it does not violate anyone’s
human rights.

1 Justcite , ‘UK Court Structure ‘
(Knowledge Base, Unknown)

accessed 17 December 2017

2 Steve Wilson and others, English Legal
System (2nd edn, Oxford University Press 2016) 110 – 111

3 Ecomonic & social research council,
‘When did Britain decide to join the European Union ‘ (The UK in a changing
Europe , Unknown)

accessed 5 December 2017

4 E-lawresorces, ‘Literal Rule of
Statutory Interpretation ‘ (E-lawresourcescouk, Unknown)
accessed 17 December 2017

5 Steve Wilson (N 2)

6 Duport Steels v Sirs 1980 1 WLR 142,

7 Steve Wilson (N 2)

8 Fisher v Bell 1961 1 QB 394

9 Offensive Weapons Act 1959, s.1

10 Steve Wilson (N 2)

11 Steve Wilson (N 2)

12 Grey v Pearson (1857) 6 HL Cas 61, 106

13 Steve Wilson (N 2)

14 Adler v George 1964 2 QB 7

15 Official Secrets Act 1920, s.34

16 Adler v George 1964 (N 14)

17 Steve Wilson (N 2)

18 Ibid

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

20 Steve Wilson (N 2)

21 Smith v Hughes 1960 1 WLR 830

22 Street Offences Act 1959, s.1(1)

23 Steve Wilson (N 2)

24 Ibid

25 Ibid

26 Ibid

27 Maunsell v
Olins 1975 AC 373

28 Steve Wilson (N 2)

29 Ibid

30 Robertson v Swift 2014 UKSC 50,
2014 1 WLR 3438

31 Steve Wilson (N 2)

32 Human Rights Act 1998

33 Steve Wilson (N 2)

34 Ibid

35 Ghaidan v
Godin-Mendoza 2004 UKHL 30.

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