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Statutory Interpretation

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1.0 Introduction

According to the Harris Clay, the Law Professor at the University of Minnesota, “statute is defined as officially documented enactments of a parliament or any other supreme legislative authority that comprehensively govern a country, a city or a state. Unlike the case law, the statutes declare a policy, prohibit or command something within the area of its jurisprudence. These legislations -referred to as black letter law- guarantee the rule of law in various countries. As such, “statutes are widely regarded as the sole authority and the primary sources of constitutional law hence remain fundamental component within the judiciary and systems of justice” (Cruz, 2009).  Statutes are the most important tool of governance without which a democratic country cannot function to the optimum. Furthermore, they not only provide an elaborate legal framework necessary for the routine administration of a country but also lay down elaborate constitutional guidelines for making important decision that affect the country as a whole.

2.0 The Significance of Statutory Interpretation

Statutory interpretation as explained by Andrew Mitchell in his book, Rules and Approaches to Statutory Interpretation, refers to a process by which judges applies and interpret the provision of an Act of Parliament when a case comes before them” (2009, p. 53).  For the purposes of their proper implementations, legitimized enforcements and further applications, the statutes must be accurately interpreted by competent legal experts within the Supreme Courts. Nevertheless, getting the exact meaning of the various contents of the statutes has posed a lot of challenge due to the following reasons.

a) The statutes are usually complex due to the use of technical and legal language that could not be readily understood by the ordinary mass. In cases where more than one draftsman are involved in putting legislative statutes into the documentary records for the purposes of future reference, there would be high chances of incoherence under the same section. These forms of inconsistencies could only be identified and further clarified by legal experts.

b) In most cases, the statutes are drafted in the present context thus fail to forecast and anticipate the future situations that are brought about by unforeseen changes, new cultures and technological advancements. As such, the statutes significantly fail to offer comprehensive provisions to all situations that would arise in the future. The judges need to interpret the statutes in bid to address existing gaps in law that were not originally covered by the statutes.

c) The statutes are popularly known to contain numerous indeterminate terms and words that bears various meaning. This phenomenon renders the statutes vague and ambiguous and its intent cannot be clearly established. Therefore, different parties will tend to successfully manipulate the meanings of such statutes in their favor while advancing their arguments in the court of law.

d) There are higher chances that some parts of the newly enacted statutes can also contradict the existing statutes either partially or entirely on any given matter that overlaps into more than one statute.

3.0 The Rule and Approaches to Statutory Interpretation

There are a number of rules and approaches that judges of the Supreme Court use as a standardized guideline in interpreting how a given statute could be applied in a related court case. These sets of systematic rules and comprehensive approaches ensure that the intents of the statutes are accurately accrued without any constitutional lapse. The judicial systems place a lot emphasis in this process because it is the only sure constitutional avenue through which the indiscriminative rule of law could be realized. This section discusses the Literal, Golden and Mischief rules of the statutory interpretation as well the major approaches to statutory interpretation.

The main approaches of statutory interpretation revolve around the traditions of the civil and common law (canons of construction). Grammatical/ literal interpretation of statutes is the commonest. The Supreme Court will be tasked with the responsibility of ascertaining the meaning of a particular statutory provision. This usually requires deciphering the meaning of the key terms. The civil and common law judges will usually have a duty to apply a particular legislative enactment strictly, if the meaning of the statute appears to be clearly defined. If only one construction is possible, the next question is whether the court is bound by the words as formulated, or whether there is some basis for changing the literal meaning. As Cruz and Malleson (1999) would put it, ‘The perimeter of the field of jurisprudence in traditional jurisprudence is characterized by the plain meaning rule on the one hand, and reasoning by analogy on the other’.

The legislative history approach seeks to ascertain legislative intention by embarking on research into the legislative history of the statute, which is often referred to by the French term ‘tarvaux preparatoire’. This category of the statutory approach is pursued very much more in civil law countries than the common law jurisdictions. Most notably, the common law statutes are not, strictly, supposed to the construed in accordance with their particular legislative history.

Thirdly, the teleological approach is the last approach to statutory approach that seeks to interpret the legislative text within the context of the contemporary conditions. It presupposes the need to extend the application of a legislative provision beyond the scope of prior legislative intent and to adapt it to rapidly changing social and economic conditions. Teleological approach is regarded as the only legitimate form of statutory interpretation. However, this approach of statutory interpretation has a number of challenges in its use. It cannot be used to reach conclusion directly as in the case of logical or grammatical interpretation hence it can only be used where there are numerous possible interpretations on a particular statute.

3.1 LITERAL RULE

This is the most common approach of interpreting a statute. It gained much popularity in the first quarter of the 19th century. The literal rule operates on the principle of interpreting statutes based on the contemporary literal plain meaning of the words used therein. The plain ordinary word meaning rule has proven very useful in cases where the intent of the Parliament in the process of making the enactments could not be easily determined due to consistencies between the newly legislated Act and the existing enactments within same area of legal domain. If the words are precise and pointing, then the judges can accrue the meaning of the statute from the ordinary meanings of the words. “The interpreting judges assume that the intent of the law makers is directly pegged on the wordings of the statute” (Dorsey, 2009).

The literal rule of interpreting statutes is liable to a lot of absurdity on the mere basis that the meanings of the complex statutes are restricted to mere words which are the most imperfect and unreliable symbols of relaying intent of the Parliament or any other legislative authority over a period of time. It is most notable that 40% of the legislations interpreted under this category of approach are highly erroneous, misleading and inconsistent with other related legislations. In his observation, Tobias Dorsey maintains that Literal rule could not be independently used to help unearth the hidden rightful meaning of legislation but in combination with other approaches.

Consider the 1836 scenario of R v Harris to illustrate the greatest limitations of the Literal Rule. The legislation categorically stated that it was only an offense to cut, wound or stab any person. If Harris bit the complainant on the ear lobe then he would be acquitted because he neither used any instrument such as knife nor did any of the acts mentioned in the act (wound, cut, or stab) but his teeth to bite. Does this mean the acquitted is not guilty of the offense? Dorsey laments that the plain meaning rule is highly subjective and gives judges room for laziness. The technique prohibits justice within the judicial systems.

3.2 THE GOLDEN RULE

This is a hybrid of the Literal Rule and the contextual parameters of the legislation. The Golden Rule operates on the principle that the proper meaning of any legislation can only construed from its ordinary plain words on condition that there is no absurdity, and inconsistency or repugnance with the rest of the Act. However, in the event of any absurdity, the Golden Rule demands that the grammatical and literary meaning of the words could be subjected to a constructive modification so as to eradicate the imminent inconsistency.

In general, the Golden Rule functions in two phases. The literal rule is first applied and should there be any absurdity, the Supreme Court will opt for a different approach with the sole intentions of avoiding the absurdity or ambiguity. Such available mechanism would include modification of the grammatical words to bring out the rightful intent of the legislative authority. In the long run, the statute is accurately interpreted not only literal meaning of the words used but also on the legislative context under which the enactment was made. The combination of the two approaches (literal rule and the context rule) in the golden rule made it less erratic in interpreting statutes compared to the unilateral literal rule.

Under the Golden Rule, the judges of the Supreme Court make much reference to the common law (canons of construction) in their attempts to interpret various statutes. Before the actual meaning the enactment is reached, the judges will review the historical context upon which the legislative authority passed the bill into a statute. The Golden Rule remains a perfect model of the legislative history approach.

3.3 THE MISCHIEF RULE

The Mischief Rule is also referred to as the Mischief Policy. In the course of interpreting the statute, the Supreme Court will first of all brings into sharp focus the nature of the common law that existed before the statute was legislated, any serious lapse (loopholes and shortcomings) of the common law that hindered it from offering justice, and finally the legislative mechanism that the parliament attempted to provide in bid to offer a lasting solution to the mischief (loopholes and shortcomings of the preliminary enactments).

The Mischief Policy will compel the presiding judges of the Supreme Court to do a thorough background information search into a particular legislation before its eventual interpretation. After the court has established the mischief, taken as the main weaknesses, of the previous common law(s) that prompted the legislative authority to come up with the existing legislations, it could now interpret the legislations with due precision and accuracy.  So far, the mischief rule is the only outstanding approach that could accurately interpret the legislation with very minimal error.

4.0 Conclusion

In conclusion, interpretation of the statutes is very important function of the Supreme Court. It ensures that various enactments written down in technical terms are accurately simplifies or interpreted for effective enforcement. The main approaches of statutory interpretation revolve around the traditions of the civil and common law. The popular approaches employed in the interpretation of various controversial enactments include Grammatical/ literal, the legislative history; teleological approaches. These highlighted approaches are guided by the literal rule, the golden rule, and the mischief in their quest to interpret legislative statutes.

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