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The three main rules of statutory interpretation are the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule

This essay outlines the rules of statutory interpretation. The essay will start by explaining what the rules are, and how they are used. This will follow the three main rules: the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule. The essay will also outline the difficulties that courts face in applying the rules.

The rules are not in fact rules, but guidelines. Law is a system of rules. The rules are a vital part of our social environment. We are subject to the rules at all times: at work, at home, in the shops. Statutory interpretation uses rules to help interpret what Parliament has enacted. The interpretation of the statute has become a hugely personal affair with judges attempting to have their final say and using whatever means to justify their decisions in a particular case. Some judges have their own favourite rule and the different outcomes may result from the use of different rules. One judge may use a particular rule of interpretation and another judge may use another rule, even for the same case.

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The three main rules of statutory interpretation are the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule. The literal rule means the courts will give words their plain, ordinary or literal meaning even if the result is not very sensible and does not appear to be the one which parliament intended when making the law. This is the oldest of the rules and it is still popular today. The reason for the popularity of this rule is that the judges are not supposed to make a law. There is always the danger that a particular interpretation may be equivalent to making law, and instead of doing that some judges prefer to stick to the literal rule and avoid this danger. This rule encourages more careful drafting.

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However, those who apply literal rule often speak of the dictionary meaning, and dictionaries always give a number of alternative meanings. For example, in the case of Whiteley v. Chappell (1868) “the defendant pretended to be someone who was on the voters’ list, but who had died. He was charged with impersonating ‘a person entitled to vote, but was found not guilty.” (Understanding law 2008, p.91). The conclusion draft by the court was that the defendant could not be convicted of the statutory offence because the person was dead. And according to a literal rule construction, a dead person was not a person entitled to vote. Using the literal rule can also lead to injustice. For example, a railway worker’s widow claimed damages from her husband; the claimant’s husband was killed while oiling points along a railway line. Under the relevant statutes, compensation was only payable if he had been relaying or repairing the line. And the House of Lords held that the claimant’s husband had merely been maintaining them, so she was denied compensation.

The golden rule is an adaptation of the literal rule. This rule provides that words should be given their ordinary meaning as far as possible, but only to the extent that they do not produce an absurd result. The rule sometimes applied incorrectly. For example, imagine the sign saying ‘Do not use lifts in case of fire’. If interpret sign literally, people will never use the lifts just in case is a fire. The mischief rule requires the interpreter of the statute to ascertain the legislator’s intention. The mischief rule allows the judges to consider four points before applying the statute:

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(a) What was the law before the statute was passed?

(b)What problem is the statute trying to remedy?

(c)What was the remedy that Parliament was trying to provide in passing the Act?

(d) What is the true reason for the remedy?

The mischief rule can only be used to interpret a statute.

There are many other rules, which judges can use when interpreting a statute.

The rules of statutory interpretation are in constant flux and there are no definite guidelines to follow which goes to show no one correct approach to interpreting the statute.

In conclusion, this essay explained that statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation. There are rules used by the courts to interpret the meaning of an Act. These rules are necessary because the meanings of an Act can be unclear, that’s why these rules are used to make a judge’s task of reaching a clear understanding of an Act, much easier. There are three main rules: the literal rule, golden rule and mischief rule.

The literal rule is used by judges to look at the literal meaning of words in an Act. If the words of an Act are unclear you must follow them even though they lead to a manifest absurdity. The golden rule also looks at the literal meaning of words of an Act but allows the court to avoid an interpretation that may lead to an absurd result. The mischief rule involves looking at Parliament’s intention for the Act, by determining the defect that the statute in question is trying to remedy.

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Words count 912


Phil Harris, (2008) an Introduction to Law, the Edinburg Building, Cambridge, CB28RU, UK

The Open University (2008) Understanding law, the Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK76AA

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The three main rules of statutory interpretation are the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule. (2021, May 02). Retrieved August 8, 2022, from