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English Legal System

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Recently the House of Lords in the interpretation of Section 1 of the Criminal Damages Act 1971 opined that ‘Since a statute is always speaking, the context or application of a statutory expression may change over time, but the meaning of the expression itself cannot change’4 By virtue of the literal rule, judges take a literal interpretation of the words used in the specific statutory provision. Difficulties arise when the legislation can have more than one interpretation. Generally, the courts will adopt the literal rule first, often guided by safeguards such as found in the words of Denning LJ who said that ‘we sit here to find out the intention of parliament and the ministers and to carry it out, and we do this better by filling in the gaps and making sense of the enactment than by opening it up to destructive analysis.’

The literal approach can lead to absurd results. In R v Ann Harris the defendant bit the victim. A literal interpretation of the statute inferred the use of a weapon that could not include teeth. The defendant was acquitted.6 Another case demonstrated that the ordinary meaning of a word may not be so ordinary after all. The defendant was charged with possession with the intent to supply under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.7 The defendant argued that since he was only holding the drugs for a friend, he was not guilty of intent to supply as the word supply, did not ordinarily mean holding drugs for another. The majority did not agree.

In Whitley v. Chappell9, the impersonation of a person who was entitled to vote was illegal. It was held that since a dead person was not entitled to vote the defendant was not guilty of the offense charged. Viscount Dilhorne in Stock v Frank Jones said, ‘when the language of a statute is plain it is not open to the court to remedy a defect of drafting.’10
In Jones v DPP, Lord Reid said that it was an important principle that judges not attribute meanings to statutory provisions that the words could not ‘reasonably bear.’