INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES (construction of statutes)

Since statutes are drafted by experts who use legal terminologies and sentences which may be interpreted by different persons, it becomes necessary to construe or interpret statutes.
Traditionally, statutory interpretation has been justified on the premises that it was necessary to ascertain and give effect to the intention of parliament. However, a more recent justification is that it is necessary to give meaning towards phrases and sentences used by parliament in a statute.
Generally, statutory interpretation facilitates uniformity and consistency in the administration of justice or application of law. To interpret statutes, courts have evolved rules and presumptions.

1. Literal Rule
This is the primary rule of statutory interpretation. It is to the effect that where the words of statute are clear and exact, they should be given their literal or natural, dictionary or plain meaning and sentences should be accorded their ordinary grammatical meaning. However, technical terms and technical legal terms must be given their technical meanings.
This rule was explained in R.-v- City of London Court Judge. Under this rule, no word is added or removed from the statute.

2. Golden rule
This rule is to some extent an exception to the literal rule.
It is applied by courts to avoid arriving at an absurd or repugnant or unreasonable decision under the literal rule.
Under this rule, a court is free to vary or modify the literal meaning of a word, phrase or sentence as to get rid of any absurdity.
The rule was explained in Becke-v-Smith (1836) as well as in Grey-v-Pearson and was applied in R-v-Allen to interpret the provision of the Offences against the Person Act (1861). It was also applied in Independence Automatic Sales Co Ltd –v- Knowles and Foster to interpret the word „book debt‟ used in Section 95 of the Companies Act of 1948.
The court interpreted it to mean all debts of the company which ought to have been entered in the books in the ordinary course of business whether or not they were so entered.

3. Mischief Rule [Rule in Heydons Case (1584)]
This is the oldest rule of statutory interpretation. Under this rule, the court examines the statutes to ascertain the defect it was intended to remedy so as to interpret the statute in such a manner as to suppress the defect.
The rule was explained by Lord Coke in Heydon’s case (1584). According to the judge, four things must be discerned and discussed:
1. What was the common law before the making of the Act?
2. What was the mischief and defect for which the law did not provide?
3. What remedy has parliament resolved i.e. appointed to cure the disease?
4. What is the true reason for the remedy?
The judge shall give such construction as shall advance the remedy and suppress the mischief.
The mischief rule was applied in Smith v. Hughes (1961) to interpret the provisions of the Street Offences Act 1959.
Under the act, it was a criminal offense for a prostitute to ,solicit men in a street or public place.‟
In this case the accused had tapped on a balcony rail and hissed at men as they passed by below. The Court applied the mischief rule and found her guilty of soliciting as the purpose of the Act was to prevent solicitation irrespective of the venue.
The mischief rule was also applied by the Court of Appeal for Eastern Africa in New great company of India v. Gross and Another (1966), to interpret the provisions of the Insurance(Motor Vehicles Third Party Risks) Act.

4. Ejus dem generis Rule
This rule is applied to interpret words of the same genus and species. It is to the effect that where general words follow particular words in the statute, the general words must be interpreted as being limited to the class of persons or things designated by the particular words.
The rule was explained in R. v. Edmundson and was applied in Evans v. Cross to interpret the provisions of the Road Traffic Act (1930).

5. Noscitur a sociis
This rule literally means that a word or phrase is known by its companions. It is to the effect that words of doubtful meanings derive their meaning and precision from the words and phrases with which they are associated.

6. Expressio unius est exclusio ullerius
This rule literally means that the expression of one thing excludes any other of the same class. This rule is to the effect that where a statute uses a particular term without general terms the statutes application is restricted to the instances mentioned.

7. Rendendo singula singullis
This rule is to the effect that words or phrases variously used in a statute must be accorded the same meaning throughout the statute.

8. A statute must be interpreted as a whole
This rule is to the effect that all words, phrases and sentences must be given their due meaning unless meaningless. All conflicting clause must be reconciled unless irreconcilable.

9. Statutes in pari materia
The interpretation of one statute is used in the interpretation of another related (similar) statute.

In the construction of statutes or Acts of parliament, courts of law are guided by certain presumptions, some of which include:
1. The statute was not intended to change or modify the common law
2. The statute was not intended to interfere with individual vested rights.
3. The statute was not intended to affect the crown or residency.
4. The statute was not intended to apply retrospectively.
5. The statute was not intended to be inconsistent with international law.
6. The statute was not intended to have extra-territorial effect.
7. An accused person is innocent until proven guilty.

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