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Rules of Statutory interpretation 2024 (guide + case examples)

This is a comprehensive guide to statutory interpretation.

In this guide, you will learn;

  • Meaning of Statutory Interpretation
  • Why statutory interpretation is necessary
  • Rules of statutory interpretation and its legal implications
    • Plain Meaning Rule
    • The Golden Rule
    • The Mischief Rule
    • The Purposive Approach Rule
  • Etc.

Let’s get started

What is Statutory Interpretation?

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Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts determine the meaning of statutory provisions for the purpose of applying them to factual situations before them.

The importance/rationale of statutory interpretation

Statutory interpretation is necessary because;

  1. There are no universal ways of drafting statutes
  2. There are sometimes hidden intentions of lawmakers which cannot easily be seen by just reading the provision of the statute
  3. Interpretation of the statute may sometimes be difficult whenever words used have more than one meaning or they are ambiguous
  4. Statutes are always open to all manner of argument and interpretation.
  5. The drafting errors
  6. The wording of the statute may be inadequate
  7. New developments, e.g. technological development
  8. Changes in the use of language

Case law on the importance/rationale of statutory interpretation

London and North Eastern Railway Company v Berriman [1946] 1 All ER 255

Mr. Berriman was a railway worker who was hit and killed by a train while he was doing maintenance work. Regulations stated that a lookout should be provided for men working on the other railway line ‘for the purposes of relaying or repairing it.

Mr. Berriman was maintaining the line. His widow tried to claim compensation for his death because the railway company had not provided a lookout man.

The court ruled that the relevant regulation did not cover maintenance work and so Mrs. Berriman’s claim failed.

The court looked at the specific words in the regulation and was not prepared to look at any broad principle that the purpose of making a regulation that a lookout man should be provided was to protect those working on railway lines.

Rules of statutory interpretation

The interpretation of statutes may be Strict or liberal. In course of interpreting statutes, courts have developed guiding approaches or rules which are grouped into two; Main principles/Primary rules to statutory interpretation and Subsidiary/Secondary rules to statutory interpretation.

The Primary rules for statutory interpretation include;  Literal/Plain Meaning Rule, the Golden rule, the Mischief Rule/The Heydon’s case Rule, and the Purposive/teleological approach rule

NB: These are merely different approaches to statutory interpretation and they are not binding to the courts.

In course of developing arguments, courts may adopt any or combination of the above rules.

Plain Meaning Rule

The plain meaning rule is the rule of statutory interpretation which is based on the assumption that the words chosen by the parliament in the Act clearly show the intention in passing that Act.

The court should not be allowed to add, take from, or modify letters of the statute.

In the case of Duport Steel v Sirs [1980] Lord Diplock states;

….the role of the judiciary is confined to ascertaining from the words of that the parliament has approved as expressing its intention, what that intention was and so giving effect to it.

Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not for 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…

The Plain meaning rule emphasizes that it is not for the court to decide whether changes should be made to the law. Courts have to adopt the grammatical or ordinary meaning of the words as they appear in the statute.

Under this rule, the judge considers what the statute actually says, rather than what it might mean.

It is expected by citizens that laws will be applied by the courts as they appear Hence legislative text is presumed to be coherent and consistent and thus preferable compared to any other external influence.

Application of Plain Meaning Rule

In Tanzania, one of the cases that applied the literal or plain meaning rule is the case of Singida RTC v Tanzania Telecommunication Corporation [1979] LRT n.11

In this case, the plaintiffs dispatched a telegram at Singida Post Office, which is owned by the defendants, to GALCO at Dar es Salaam.

The said telegram required the said GALCO at Dar es Salaam to dispatch four thousand corrugated iron sheets to the plaintiffs.

Owing to the negligence of the defendant’s servant either at their Singida post office or at one of their post offices at Dar es Salaam ‘four thousand’ read ‘forty thousand’.

Upon receipt of the wrongly worded telegram, GALCO dispatched the first consignment of twelve thousand corrugated iron sheets to the plaintiffs.

In turn, the plaintiffs were forced to transport back to GALCO the excess amount of corrugated iron sheets at a cost of shs 39,200/= which amount they were claiming from the defendants.

Sections 73(b) and 117 of the Act provided that the defendant corporation shall not incur any liability by the reason, inter alia, of any delay in the transmission of any telegram or by reason of any error in, omission from, or non-delivery, or misdelivery of any telegram.

The Counsel for the plaintiffs contended that the statutory provision was not intended to cover all types of errors.

In solving the issue the Court had this to say;

The Cardinal canon of the construction of statutes is to give the words used in a statute their ordinary plain meaning. Generally speaking, therefore, the courts must be content to accept the ordinary and plain meaning of words used in a statute as conclusive evidence of what the legislature has said and meant.

The Court emphasized that the principle of interpretation can only be departed from where the statute is vague or ambiguous.

Therefore the Court held; In the absence of evidence to that effect, the courts have no option but to take it for granted that the legislature has said what it meant and meant what it has said.

It observed further that; It is true that these statutory provisions do erode the common law rights of an individual in that they take away from his right to sue for negligence.

But that is no reason for departing from the true meaning of the words used and the intention to be gathered therefrom.

The language used in the Act makes it quite clear that the intention of the legislature was to place the common law rights of the individual in the second place.

Advantages of the plain meaning rule

  • Constitutionally plain meaning rule respects parliamentary supremacy and the right of Parliament to make any law it might wish no matter how absurd they may seem.
  • the plain meaning rule encourages precision in drafting and ensures that anyone who can read legislative text can determine the law, which promotes certainty and reduces litigation.

Disadvantages of the plain meaning rule

  1. the plain meaning rule fails to recognize that any language itself may be ambiguous and that words may have different meanings in different contexts.
  2. The use of the plain meaning rule can sometimes lead to absurdities and loopholes which can be exploited by an unmeritorious litigant.
  3. Judges have tended to over-emphasize the literal meaning of statutory provisions without giving due weight to their meaning in a wider context.
  4. Placing emphasis on the literal meaning of words assumes an unobtainable perfection in draftsmanship.
  5. Finally, the plain meaning rule ignores the limitations of language including developments that may take place.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule refers to the rule of statutory interpretation which requires interpretation of the statutory provisions by looking at the ordinary and grammatical meaning of the words except where doing so would lead to absurdity.

Glanville William says;

…the Courts sometimes allow themselves to construe a statute in such a way as to produce a reasonable result, even though this involves departing from the prima facie meaning of the words.
This rule is used by judges when in course of interpreting statutory provisions, they find out that the meaning is ambiguous and to follow such meaning will lead to absurdity.

Michael Zander says;

…the Golden rule does at least have the saving grace that it may protect the court from egregious foolishness.
The term absurd simply means wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate.

Application of The Golden Rule

In Tanzania, the case of Joseph Warioba v Stephen Wassira and Another [1997] TLR 272 (CA) demonstrates the application of the Golden Rule.

In this case, the first respondent Mr. Stephen Masatu Wassira was elected Member of Parliament for the Bunda constituency, but subsequently, his election was nullified by the High Court (Lugakingira, J) upon an election petition filed by the appellant, Mr. Joseph Sinde Warioba.

In the course of dealing with that petition, the trial judge found that the respondent had committed an act of corrupt practice, but declined to certify the same to the Director of Elections in terms of s 114 of the Elections Act. The appellant was aggrieved by such omission, hence this appeal.

The main issue was whether the learned trial judge erred in law when having correctly found the Respondent to have committed corrupt practices, he declined to certify to the Director of Elections that the Respondent is guilty of corrupt practices.

The trial judge declined to certify to the Director of Elections because the corrupt practice was not made the subject for certifying to the Director under s 114 of the Elections Act.

The Act provided for certifying to the Director of Elections the finding of illegal practice only, not corrupt practice.

Section 114(1) of the Elections Act stated:

114(1) Where the Court determines that a person is guilty of any illegal practice, it shall certify the same to the Director of Elections …

Counsel for the respondent had contended before the High Court that in the absence of any reference to `corrupt practice’ in the provision, there could be no basis for requiring that Court to certify any finding of corrupt practice to the Director of Elections.

To counter that argument, counsel for the appellant submitted that the omission to require findings of corrupt practice to be certified to the Director of Elections was simply through inadvertence.

Hence the Court of Appeal was called upon to determine whether such an omission was deliberate or was through inadvertence.

Having examined carefully the historical background of the amendments to the Elections Act the Court observed;

It would, therefore, be absurd,…for Parliament to empower the elections court to certify for sanctions persons found  guilty of illegal practice but to let those found guilty of corrupt practice go scot-free, especially considering the fierce war which the society has been waging against corruption in recent years, and continue to do so in the present day.

Had Parliament been appraised of such blatant absurdity at the time of enacting the Act, it would have taken steps to remove it; we feel justified to construe s 114 in such a way as to achieve just that which Parliament had set out to do and no more.

The Court added further that;

Section 114, literally construed, would be discriminatory in its effect because, as already noted, it empowers the court to certify for sanctions persons found guilty of illegal practice while conferring no such power on the court in respect of those found guilty of the corrupt practice which is a similar or even more serious offense.

This would contravene Article 13(2) of the Constitution of the United Republic which in effect prohibits the enactment of any law which is either directly discriminatory or is discriminatory in its effect.

The Mischief Rule

The Mischief Rule is the rule of statutory interpretation which tries to interpret statutory words by looking at the intention of the parliament through the history of the enactment of a particular Act.

When applying this rule, the court should ask itself what mischief was intended to be cured by this provision.

This is sometimes called the rule of Heydon’s Case (1584).

in Heydon’s Case court ruled that for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes four things must be considered;

  1. What was the common law before the statute was made?
  2. What were the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide?
  3. What remedy has Parliament appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth?
  4. The true reason for the remedy

Judges of the Exchequer stated further that; It is the role of the judges to make a construction that will suppress subtle inventions for continuing the mischief to add force and life to the remedy according to the true intention of the makers of the Act

The Mischief Rule has significantly influenced the interpretation of statutes that takes into consideration of the historical background of the particular Act

Michael Zander says;

The mischief rule is designed to get the Court to consider why the Act was passed and then to apply that knowledge in giving the words under consideration whatever meaning will best accord with the social purpose of the legislation.

Application of the Mischief Rule

In Tanzania, the case of Bi Hawa Mohamed v Ally Sefu [1983] TLR 32 (CA) demonstrates the application of The Mischief Rule

The Court observed as to the meaning of this rule; Under this rule, the court, in looking for the true meaning of ambiguous statutory provisions is guided by the defect or mischief which the statute was enacted to rectify or cure.

In this case;

The appellant and respondent were wife and husband respectively until the dissolution of their marriage by a court decree of the Primary Court of Ilala District at Kariakoo, Dar es Salaam in 1980.

In subsequent proceedings, the Primary Court held that the appellant was not entitled to any share in the matrimonial assets as she was a mere wife and that the house was bought with the husband’s money.

On appeal to the High Court, the Primary Court’s decision was substantially upheld.

This was a second appeal to the Court of Appeal.

The issue before the Court of Appeal was;

Whether the High Court and Primary Court erred in law in holding the view that the domestic services of a housewife do not amount to contributions made by her in acquiring matrimonial assets.

The Court hence stated;

On examination of the Law of Marriage Act, 1971, and the law as it existed before its enactment, one cannot fail to notice that the mischief that the Law of Marriage Act, 1971 sought to cure or rectify was what may be described as the traditional exploitation and oppression of married women by their husbands.

The Court added further that;

It is apparent that the Act seeks to liberate married women from such exploitation and oppression by reducing the traditional inequality between them and their husbands in so far as their respective domestic rights and duties are concerned.

Although certain features of traditional inequality still exist under the Act, such as polygamous marriages, these do not detract from the overall purpose of the Act as an instrument of liberation and equality between the sexes.
Having determined such mischief which the law intended to cure. The Court concluded that;

Guided by this objective of the Act, we are satisfied that the “joint efforts” and “work towards the acquiring of the assets” have to be construed as embracing the domestic “efforts” or “work” of husband and wife.

NB: Nonetheless such a conclusion did not help the appellant since her appeal was dismissed on other grounds

The Purposive Approach Rule

The purposive approach rule is a rule of statutory interpretation that identifies the overall purpose of the legislation. It is frequently used in combination with the Golden rule or Mischief rule. It is sometimes called the teleological approach rule.

Different from Mischief or Golden rule, in discerning such an intention, with a purposive approach;

Attention is not typically limited to the context in which the text was originally enacted

Frequently reference may be made to more recent events so as to produce an intention that relates to all cognate provisions of the law currently in force.

The aim is to update the intention of the parliament with the prevailing circumstances.

The purposive approach is a new invention in the rules of statutory interpretation and it is commonly used in European Union.

Application of the Purposive Approach Rule

In Tanzania, the case of Joseph Warioba v Stephen Wassira and Another [1997] TLR 272 (CA) demonstrates the application of the purposive approach rule.

Having considered the counsels submissions in this case, the Court observed;

We think that this is a fit case where, …, the court should interpret s 114 as including or extending to corrupt practice. The view that nothing should be added to a statutory provision was widely accepted by the courts in England during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Thus for instance, in R v Judge of the City of London Court (1) at 290 the Court of Appeal (per Lord Esher, MR) said, inter alia, that:

… If the words of an Act are clear, you must follow them, even though they lead to a manifest absurdity. The Court has nothing to do with the question of whether the legislature has committed an absurdity.’

The Court proceeded to cite English Authorities on that position saying;

Re-affirming that view, the House of Lords (per Lord Atkinson) in the case of Vacher and Sons Ltd v London Society of Compositors (2) at 121said:

…  a Court of law has nothing to do with the reasonableness or unreasonableness of a provision of a statute, except so far as it may help it in interpreting what the Legislature has said. If the language of a statute be plain, admitting of only one meaning, the Legislature must be taken to have meant and intended what it has plainly expressed, and whatever it has in clear terms enacted must be enforced though it should lead to absurd or mischievous results.’
Those were observations which were cited from cases that were in favor of the Literal/Plain meaning rule.

In order to adopt the purposive approach the Court of Appeal observed;

However, over the years this position has changed, and the view today is that in interpreting a statutory provision the court may, in a fit case, read words into the provision.

The Court continued to say

Thus, for instance, in Kammins Ballrooms Co Ltd v Zenith Investments (Torquay) Ltd (3) at 893 the House of Lords (as per Lord Diplock) adopted what was described as the `purposive’ approach, instead of the literal approach, and imputed to Parliament `an intention not to impose a prohibition inconsistent with the objects which the statute was designed to achieve, though the draftsman [had] omitted to incorporate in express words any reference to that intention’.

the Court added further that;

That approach was re-echoed and elaborated upon by the Court of Appeal in Nothman v Barnet London Borough (4) at 1246 where Lord Denning, MR said:

`The literal method (of construction) is now completely out of date. It has been replaced by … the “purposive” approach…. In all cases now in the interpretation of statute we adopt such a construction as will promote the general legislative purpose underlying the provision. It is no longer necessary for the judges to wring their hands and say: There is nothing we can do about it. Whenever the strict interpretation of a statute gives rise to an absurd and unjust situation, the judges can and should use their good sense to remedy it — by reading words in, if necessary — so as to do what Parliament would have done had they had the situation in mind.’

The Court hence arrived at a conclusion that Consistent with such holding, the Court declined to adopt the literal approach, and instead read words into the provision of the statute which it was construing.

Hence in this case the Court used a combination of two approaches; the Golden Rule and the Purposive Approach.

Isack Kimaro
Isack Kimaro

Isack Kimaro, a lawyer, Creative Writer and self-taught SEO expert has been a prominent author of law-related topics since 2017. Through hard work, dedication, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge, Isack has successfully navigated the legal industry by providing valuable and easy-to-understand legal information to 500,000+ individuals of all levels of understanding.