Rules that the court may apply in interpretation of a statute
Over the years, courts have developed rules which they rely upon to guide them when
interpreting a statute or a delegated legislation. These rules include:-
(i) The literal rule
This is the primary rule of interpretation. It is also known as litiria scripta.
Under this rule, the words of the law are interpreted according to their grammatical or dictionary meanings. Generally speaking, this is a command that the court should not depart from the ordinary meaning of the words by adding or taking away from them.
This rule requires a court not to apply any tact when the very words of the law are by themselves clear.
CASE: Rv’s Haris
The accused was charged under statute which made it an offence for someone to ‘stab’, ‘cut’ or
‘wound’ any person. The accused in a heated argument proceeded and bit the end of another
person thereby injuring him.
Applying the literal rule of interpretation, it was held that the accused was not liable under the
act. This was so because the word ‘stab’ ‘cut’ or ‘wound’ in their literal interpretation, indicated
that for an offence to be committed under the statute, the offender must use some form of
(ii). The golden rule
Sometimes applying the literal rule may result into inconsistency, absurdity, inconvenience or
repugnance and this would not give adequate effect to the statute. In such circumstances, the
literal rule of interpretation is departed from in favor of the golden rule. Under this rule, the
words of the statute or the delegated legislation are interpreted in such a manner to remove any inconsistency, absurdity, inconvenience or repugnance that might arise from the literal
interpretation of the words used.
CASE: Ref sysworth (1535)
X murdered his mother and according to the English law of succession, X was the only heir to inherit his mother’s property. A literal interpretation of the word ‘heir’ would make X to inherit his mother’s property thereby resulting into absurdity, in that, a murderer would be allowed by law to inherit his victim’s property. Departing from the ru le of interpretation, the word’ heir’ was interpreted not to mean and include any person who might have participated in the death of the person whose property is to be inherited. Therefore, X was found not to be falling within the meaning of the word ‘heir’.
iii). Mischief rule
Another situation in which the literal rule is departed from is afforded by the mischief rule. It is also known as The historical rule of interpretation.
Sometimes it is not possible to ascertain the intention of the maker of the law through literal
interpretation. In such cases, the literal is departed from and the mischief rule is applied. Under this rule, the court examines the law in order to ascertain the very purpose the law was intended to achieve. This is done by asking the full questions:
1). What was the position under the common law before the making of the law.
2). What was the mischief and the defect which the common law did not provide for.
The court then proceeds to interpret the law in such a manner that the mischief or defect which was not provided for under the common law is suppressed.
CASE: Gardner vs Serenorks (1915)
An English statute provided for the safe storage of certain inflammable materials in a cave and when someone was working around the cave, the materials exploded and he was injured and Mr.Z was sued. Mr.Z in his defence argued that the Act did not apply in his case since the materials were not on promises but ill a cave.
Applying the mischief rule, the court looked at the very purpose of the law and come to a
conclusion that the Act was aimed at protecting person working in places where inflammable
materials were stored, Therefore the word ‘promises’ in the Act included a cave and the Law
was held applicable in the case of Z.