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Statutory Interpretation
Aids to interpretation
Lesson Objectives
• I will be able to explain the different aids to
• I will be able to explain the different rules of
• I will be able to explain how cases illustrate
aids to interpretation and rules of language
There are certain materials both inside and
outside the Act that the judge can refer to which
help him/her interpret the words or provisions
of the Act.
These are known as ‘aids to interpretation’.
There are two types of aids: intrinsic and
Aids to interpretation
Intrinsic aids
Anything within the Act
• Preamble
• Long title
• Definition sections
• Other sections
• Objectives section (if
there is one)
• Schedules
• Margin notes or headings
Other aids:
• Latin Rules of Language
• Presumptions
Extrinsic aids
Matters outside the Act:
Previous Acts on the same
Interpretation Act
Earlier case law
Dictionaries, including those
of the time when the act was
Hansard – Pepper v Hart
Law Commission reports –
Black Clawson
International treaties, etc. –
Fothergill v Monarch Airlines
Explanatory notes for bills
Textbooks – Re Castioni (1891)
Intrinsic aids
Intrinsic aids are sources within the Act (internal aids).
Older statutes may contain a preamble which
is a statement preceding the main body of the
Act, setting out the purpose of the Act in
Newer Acts may contain an objectives or
purposes section at the beginning.
Long Title
The long and/or short title of the Act may be referred
to as guidance. The long title of the Abortion Act
1967 is:
‘An Act to amend and clarify the law relating to
termination of pregnancy by registered medical
Royal College of Nursing of the UK v DHSS (1981) –
referred to this
Definition Sections
Most modern Acts contain a special
interpretation definition section, which
explains the meaning of key words used in the
Act – Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act
Punctuation is now recognised to have an
effect on the meaning of words and can be
taken into account in determining the
meaning of statutory provisions. – Hanlon v
The Law Society (1981) – Lord Lowry’s talk
Objectives Section
As mentioned earlier, some new acts will have
an objectives or purposes section – Climate
Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006
“The principle purpose of this Act is to enhance
the United Kingdom’s contribution to
combating climate change.”
Schedules appear as additions to the main body of
the Act. These can be referred to in order to make
some sense of the main text.
In some cases it will be necessary to refer to the
Schedules to understand the Act.
E.g. Hunting Act 2004
“Hunting is exempt if it is within a class specified in
Schedule 1.”
Margin notes or headings
Judges can use margin notes or headings to
aid them when interpreting the law.
Extrinsic aids
Extrinsic aids are sources outside the Act (external aids).
Previous Acts on the same point
Previous Acts may be referred to.
Wheatley (1979) – The Court of Appeal had to
interpret the provisions of the Explosive
Substances Act 1883. The long title of the Act was
‘An Act to amend the law relating to explosive
substances, amending the Explosives Act 1875’.
The Court of Appeal therefore looked at the
earlier Act to make sense of the 1883 Act.
Interpretation Act
The Interpretation Act 1978 provides definition of certain
words which are often used in Acts. E.g. it provides that
masculine shall include the feminine, and singular words
include the plural unless a contrary intention appears within
the Act.
Section 6:
In any Act, unless the contrary appears,
a) Words importing the masculine gender include feminine
b) Words importing the feminine gender include masculine
c) Words in the singular include the plural and words in the
plural include the singular
The Interpretation Act 1978
e.g. “he” means “he” or “she” unless
otherwise specified;
a singular noun means singular or plural as
relevant unless otherwise specified;
Dictionaries can be used to find the literal meaning of words.
Vaughn v Vaughn (1973) – the Court of Appeal had to
interpret the word ‘molest’.
Husband went to wife’s house, who was afraid of him and he
had been violent to and had an injunction against him, early
in morning and late at night. He claimed he wasn’t molesting
The judges consulted a dictionary which gave the definition
‘to cause trouble, vex, annoy, or put to inconvenience’ and
held the defendant’s acts did amount to molestation.
Courts have been able to refer to Parliamentary debates
recorded in Hansard since Pepper v Hart (1993).
However, the House of Lords in this case held that Hansard
can only be referred to in certain circumstances:
The Act must be ambiguous or obscure, or a literal
interpretation would lead to an absurdity
• Judges may look only at statements made by a Minister or
other promoter of the Bill
• The statements must be clear in order for them to be relied
Law Commission Reports
The court may look at reports of the Law
Commission, Royal Commission and other
official law reform bodies. A Law Commission
Report can highlight what is wrong with the
old law and suggest options. A report usually
includes a draft Bill.
International Treaties
International Treaties may be referred to in
order to ascertain the overriding objective of
the Treaty which the Act is intended to comply
with. This will often arise when judges are
interpreting EU law.
Explanatory Notes
Since 1999, Acts have been issued with
explanatory notes. These are not part of the
Act, hence they are external. They are written
by the Government department responsible
for the Act once it has been given Royal
Text books
Text books may be referred to for guidance as
to the meaning of a word or phrase. – Re
Castioni (1891) – J.F. Stephen referred to his
own text ‘History of the Criminal Law of
England’ when interpreting the words
‘political crime’.
Other aids to interpretation
• Latin rules of language
• Presumptions
Judges make presumptions about the wording of a statute.
They know that:
• the common law has not been changed unless the Act
clearly states to the contrary
• a criminal offence requires mens rea (a guilty mind)
• the law should not act retrospectively
•The Crown is not bound
Latin rules of language
In addition to the four main rules, there are other rules of
language, sometimes referred to as subsidiary rules:
• ejusdem generis (Powell v Kempton Park Racecourse)
• expressio unius est exclusio alterius (Inhabitants of
Sedgley (1837))
• noscitur a sociis (Muir v Keay)
The ejusdem generis rule
Under this rule, where general words follow particular words,
the general words are interpreted to be of the same kind as
the particular words.
E.g. ‘dogs, cats and other animals’
The particular words are dogs and cats.
The general words are other animals.
Under ejusdem generis, the general words would be
interpreted in line with the particular words. Therefore as
dogs and cats are domestic animals, the general words of
‘other animals’ would be interpreted to mean other domestic
Powell v Kempton Park Rac e Course
‘house, office or other place’ for betting
Defendant’s betting purposes were open –air
and not enclosed. Ejusdem generis was
applied and defendant not liable.
Expressio unius est exclusio atterius
This means the expression of one thing
implies the exclusion of another. Where
particular words are used and these are not
followed by general words, the Act applies
only to the instances specified (the particular
words). E.g. Inhabitants of Sedgley (1837) –
rates were charged on ‘land, titles and coal
mines.’ Therefore rates could not be charged
on any mine other than coal mines.
Noscitur a sociis
Under this ‘rule’ the meaning of a word is to be gathered from
the context in which it is written. E.g. Refreshment Houses Act
1860 – stated that all houses, rooms and shops or buildings
kept open for ‘entertainment’ during certain hours of the
night must be licensed.
In Muir v Keay (1975) – defendant kept his cafe open to the
public during the night without a license. The court applied
the rule and held that ‘entertainment’ in the context of the
Act did not mean only musical or theatrical entertainment,
but meant other forms of enjoyment, such as drinking coffee
late at night – therefore defendant had committed an offence
under the Act.
Ejusdem generis – For
a list of words
followed by
general words, the
general words are
limited to the same
kind of items as
those in the list
Powell v Kempton
Park Racecourse:
all the “places for
betting” listed
were indoors, so
the place
mentioned had to
be indoors too. It
was not and so
was not affected
by the statute
Three rules of
Expressio unius
exclusio alterius –
To mention one
thing / some things
is to exclude other
things. If there is a
list, but no general
words, then only the
items in the list are
Tempest v Kilner:
only “goods, wares
and merchandise”
were affected by the
statute, because
only they were
mentioned – not
stocks or shares
Noscitur a sociis – Consider the context: words cannot be considered
in isolation. They are known by the company they keep
IRC v Frere: “interest, annuities or other annual interest” affected
only annual interest, not any other sort
Step-by-step problem-solving in statutory
Use the Interpretation Act 1978 (throughout)
Define the literal approach. Tell the reader it includes three rules of
Try the literal, golden and mischief rules in turn
If a sensible result is achieved, stop; if absurd, go on to the next
Use the rules of language to help you with each rule of interpretation, and
possibly internal aids
Purposive approach: define
Try the purposive approach, using both internal and external aids
Remember throughout that judges very rarely find the meaning of a statute
to be absurd: they certainly do not set out to do so, and neither should you
Remember too that there are special rules for some cases, e.g.
European matters use the purposive approach
Judges may now refer to Hansard even though they use the literal approach
(Pepper v Hart)
NB Always explain fully what you are doing, using case examples
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