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Golden Rule of Interpretation

person DateApril 24, 2017

Golden Rule of Interpretation

The Golden Rule, or British rule, is a form of statutory interpretation that allows a judge to depart from a word’s normal meaning in order to avoid an absurd result. It is a compromise between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning; if the word only has one meaning, but applying this would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.

This rule may be used in two ways. It is applied most frequently in a narrow sense where there is some ambiguity or absurdity in the words themselves.

For example, imagine there may be a sign saying “Do not use lifts in case of fire.” Under the literal interpretation of this sign, people must never use the lifts, in case there is a fire. However, this would be an absurd result, as the intention of the person who made the sign is obviously to prevent people from using the lifts only if there is currently a fire nearby.

The second use of the golden rule is in a wider sense, to avoid a result that is obnoxious to principles of public policy, even where words have only one meaning. Example: The facts of a case are; a son murdered his mother and committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on who then inherited the estate, the mother’s family, or the son’s descendants. There was never a question of the son profiting from his crime, but as the outcome would have been binding on lower courts in the future, the court found in favour of the mother’s family.

Re Sigsworth [1935] 1 Ch 98

A son murdered his mother. She had not made a will. Under the statute setting the law on intestacy he was her sole issue and stood to inherit her entire estate. The court applied the Golden rule holding that an application of the literal rule would lead to a repugnant result. He was thus entitled to nothing.

R v.  Allen (1872) LR 1 CCR 367

The defendant was charged with the offence of bigamy under s.57 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The statute states ‘whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence’. Under a literal interpretation of this section the offence would be impossible to commit since civil law will not recognise a second marriage any attempt to marry in such circumstances would not be recognised as a valid marriage.

Held: The court applied the golden rule and held that the word ‘marry’ should be interpreted as ‘to go through a marriage ceremony’. The defendant’s conviction was upheld.

Adler v. George [1964] 2 QB 7

Under the Official Secrets Act 1920 it was an offence to obstruct a member of the armed forces ‘in the vicinity’ of a prohibited palace. The defendant was actually in the prohibited place, rather than ‘in the vicinity’ of it, at the time of obstruction.

Held: The court applied the golden rule. It would be absurd for a person to be liable if they were near to a prohibited place and not if they were actually in it. His conviction was therefore upheld.
Problems with the golden rule

  • Judges are able to add or change the meaning of statutes and thereby become law makers infringing the separation of powers.
  • Judges have no power to intervene for pure injustice where there is no absurdity.

London and North Eastern Railway v.  Berriman [1946] AC 278

A railway worker was killed whilst oiling the track. No look out man had been provided. A statute provided compensation payable on death for those ‘relaying or repairing’ the track. Under the literal rule oiling did not come into either of these categories. This result although very harsh could not to be said to be absurd so the golden rule could not be applied. There was no ambiguity in the words therefore the mischief rule could not be applied. Unfortunately the widow was entitled to nothing.

 Advantages of the golden rule

  • Errors in drafting can be corrected immediately.

R v.  Allen (1872) LR 1 CCR 367

The defendant was charged with the offence of bigamy under s.57 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The statute states ‘whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence’. Under a literal interpretation of this section the offence would be impossible to commit since civil law will not recognise a second marriage any attempt to marry in such circumstances would not be recognised as a valid marriage.

Held: The court applied the golden rule and held that the word ‘marry’ should be interpreted as ‘to go through a marriage ceremony’. The defendant’s conviction was upheld.

  • Decisions are generally more in line with Parliament’s intention
  • Closes loopholes
  • Often gives a more just result
  • Brings common sense to the law

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