Independence of judiciary

This article is written by Indrasish Majumdar, intern at LawSikho. The article has been edited by Smriti Katiyar (Associate, LawSikho).


The will of the sovereign legislature is replicated by a “statute” that upholds the functioning of the government. In the course of administering justice, the executive and the judiciary, two pillars of the government, must enforce the rules as per the legislative will. Frequently, certain situations arise wherein the courts are called upon to decipher the words and expressions used in the law. Over the decades, the Courts have laid down certain guidelines known as “Rules of Interpretation of Statutes” for purposes of such interpretation. The process by which the accurate meaning of a word is comprehended is known as interpretation. The rules of interpretation can be divided into three main types 1) “Literal Rule”, “the Golden Rule”, and “the Mischief Rule”. 

Under the “the literal rule” principle the court determines what the law means, rather than what it might suggest. In the process of doing this, the judge will lend the words in the legislation a literal interpretation, that is, their regular meaning, even though the result of this is to create what may be perceived as an otherwise unfair or unacceptable effect. The literal rule explicates that the purpose of Parliament is better contained in the ordinary and normal context of the terms used. As the representative democratic component of the state, the Parliament may be assumed to try to enact just what it states in its rules. If judges are empowered to provide an apparent or non-literal interpretation of the language of the parliamentary statute, then the will of Parliament, and thus the citizens, is being undermined. 

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Lord Diplock once noted: Where the interpretation of the legislative term is clear and unambiguous, it is not for the judges to concoct imagined peculiarities as a pretext for failing to offer substance to its literal meaning, unless they believe the consequences of doing so are unjustified, unfair, or unethical. Constitutionally, the law recognises legislative sovereignty and the freedom of the Legislature to enact whatever laws it may deem necessary, irrespective of how ludicrous they might sound. Literal interpretation also facilitates accuracy in drafting and assures that everyone who can interpret English can decide the laws, which creates clarity and prevents lawsuits. The objectives of the paper are to 1) analyse the “principle of literal interpretation”, its genesis and contemporary relevance 2) to be aware of the critiques associated with “the Literal Rule 3) study the juristic analysis of the literal rule in the UK in light of 10 case laws. The research question that this article attempts to answer is whether in terms of delivering justice the literal rule of interpretation involves ambiguity. 

Case studies

Fisher v. Bell

In 1961, a three-judge bench of Lord Parker C.J, Ashworth and Elwes JJ. was tasked with the responsibility of delivering a verdict on a very intriguing matter involving the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act, 1959. 

On October 26, 1959, the defendant, James Charles Bell had a knife displayed in his shop window with a price ticket of 4s attached along with the description of the object as “Ejector knife”. Located in Bristol City, Bell carried out his trade through his shop named ‘Bell’s Music Shop’. However, little did he know that a police constable named John Kingston would walk by his shop on October 26th and this incident would ignite the controversy. After examining the knife, the constable decided to take it to the superintendent of police for further scrutiny. He returned the same day to inform Mr Bell that he is obligated under law to report Mr Bell’s blatant ignorance of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act by offering a “flick knife” for sale.

The defendant seemed anything but nervous. He believed he had reasonable cause to back his statement that the knife was not displayed in the window as an “offer for sale”. His action has to be considered as merely an invitation to offer which can not be treated on the same footing as an offer for sale. In essence, the question was whether the knife exhibited in the shop window with the price ticket attached was an offer for sale as per Section 1(1) of the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act, 1959.

The prosecutor put forth a very interesting line of argument. Having conceded that in ordinary law of contract, an exhibition of goods in a shop window amounts to an invitation to treat and not an offer for sale, they requested the judges to direct their attention to the surrounding context and the mischief that the Act seeks to punish. Citing Keating v. Horwood and Wiles v. Maddison, the prosecutor wanted to drive home the point that if displaying goods in a shop window at an exorbitant price could be subjected to conviction, then why can Mr Bell not be punished for the act of displaying the knife with the price tag? The prosecution’s primary line of argument was that the Act of 1959 was aimed at imposing a blanket ban on flick knives, and therefore the words “offer for sale” in Section 1(1) should be given a wide amplitude to prevent such goods from being placed in shop windows with price tickets.

The defendant summarily rejected the prosecution’s contentions and harped on the fact that the expression “offer for sale” is not defined by the Act and it can only be interpreted by reference to general law. Citing Bristol Guardians v. Bristol Waterworks Co., the defendant also emphasized how even if they were to accept that the Act was silent in defining the term “offer for sale”, the Court cannot take it upon them to read words into the legislation to perfect it.

While delivering the verdict, Lord Parker C.J admitted that going by the apprehension of laymen, displaying a knife by the shop window with a price tag attached not being offered for sale would seem a ridiculous line of argument. However, following the provisions of ordinary contract law, it would only amount to an invitation to offer. He refused to consider the ratio laid down in Keating v. Horwood or Wiles v. Maddison as he believed that the facts of the present case were entirely different from these two cases, thereby mitigating the need to deliberate more on these precedents.

Courts followed the ordinary contract law concept of “offer for sale” in the absence of an exclusive provision in the concerned legislation. This establishes the legal principle of Courts not having the authority to add or read words into a legal statute for bringing more clarity. Unless the provision leads to a manifest absurdity, the Courts are not empowered to read words into it. 

Bourne v. Norwich Crematorium

Norwich Crematorium was engaged in the trade of disposing of human dead cremation. Built in 1936-37, the amount invested was 2,157 pounds. For the year 1964-65, the Crematorium appealed to the general commissioners against an assessment of income tax in respect of profits for 8,500 pounds. The commissioners favoured the Crematorium’s ground ascertaining that the furnace chamber and chimney towers were industrial buildings or structures as per Section 271(1)(c) of the Income Tax Act, 1952. The case went to appeal later.

Located at Horsham St Faiths, Norfolk, the Crematorium is a public company incorporated on April 5, 1935, under the Companies Act, 1929. The counsels representing the crematorium contended that first, the structure in question came under the ambit of Section 271(1)(c) and the human corpse should be regarded as “material” to entail a substantive meaning to the provision in the present case. Second, it was also contended on their behalf that the structure had to be brought within the scope of Section 271(1)(c) and in no way, it qualifies under Section 271(1)(a),(b) or (d).

Following a more humane approach and taking a rational stand in this context, the Crown based their contentions on the following grounds:

  1. As per Section 271(1) of the Income Tax Act, 1952, crematoriums cannot be regarded as “industrial buildings”.
  2. According to Section 271(d) of the Act, including a human corpse under the scope of “goods or materials” would be extremely immoral.
  3. Consequently, the trade of taxpayers cannot be brought under the scope of Section 271(1)(c) and hence the claim for annual allowance shall not be entertained.

Stamp J. while delivering his verdict chose to examine Section 265 of the Income Tax Act which confers initial allowances equal to a proportion of expenditure incurred by the taxpayer before a specified day. Further, he also scrutinised Section 266 of the Act which grants relief in the form of an annual allowance to a taxpayer entitled to an interest such as is described in an industrial building or structure.

He said that even if the Court were to believe that all things visible are material and the human body should also be considered as material, the use of plural form, that is “materials”, is what forbids the construction of “goods and materials” in the sense urged by the taxpayers. To make a very valid point, he says “English words derive colour from those which surround them. Sentences are not mere collections of words to be taken out of the sentence, defined separately by reference to the dictionary or decided cases and then put back again into the sentence..” He strongly disagreed with the contention of taxpayers and found no reason to believe the burning of the mortal remains of homo sapiens as the subjection of goods or materials to a process. Hence, it cannot be brought under the ambit of Section 271(1)(c) under the scope of “industrial buildings”.

Partridge v. Crittenden

On 5th April 1968, a three-judge bench of Lord Parker C.J, Ashworth and Blain JJ. delivered their verdict on one of the landmark cases on the literal construction of statutes in the UK. The case went to appeal.

According to the information furnished by the prosecutor on June 19, 1967, an advertisement containing the terms “Quality British A.B.C.R……bramble finch cocks, bramble finch hens, 25s each” was printed in the periodical “Cage and Aviary Birds” dated April 13th of the same year. This advertisement appeared under the title “classified advertisements”.  Mr Thomas Shaw Thompson enclosed a cheque for the 30s and requested the dispatch of a bramble finch hen. On May 1, 1967, the appellant dispatched a bramble finch hen with a closed ring to Mr Thompson by British Rail. Mr Thompson received the bird on the very next day.

On receiving the box, he opened it in the presence of the prosecutor and was able to remove the ring with relative ease.

The appellants contended that this advertisement was merely an invitation to treat and does not contravene Section 6(1) of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954. Further, they harped on the fact that merely because the ring could be removed, it does not mean that the bird was not a close-ranged specimen bred in captivity. On the other hand, the prosecution presented a two-fold argument stating that first, the advertisement in the periodical was an “offer for sale” and second, the brambling so offered for sale was not a close-ranged specimen bred in captivity as the ring could be easily removed from the bird’s leg.

The appellant was charged with unlawfully offering for sale a bramble finch hen in contravention of Section 6(1) of the Act. The justices reasoned that “hen” was a bird included in Schedule 4 to the Act and since the ring could be removed, it implied that the bird was not bred in captivity. However, when the case went to appeal, the three-judge bench was inclined to differ.

On appeal, Ashworth J. Stated that the absence of the term “offer for sale” anywhere in the periodical, strengthens the case of the appellant. He also firmly disagreed with the justices who favoured the prosecution on the issue of the close ring, serving as an adequate indication that the bird could not have been legitimately sold. Further, he also stated that the expression ‘close-ringed’ is nowhere defined and reading words into the statute would amount to judicial outreach.

A very interesting observation was made by Ashworth J. while delivering his judgement. He stated that in his opinion, this was a clear case of “sale” as the cheque was sent by Mr Thompson against which the appellant sent the bird. This was a clear case of a completed sale. However, the prosecution chose to prosecute him for “offering for sale” relying on the advertisement, which weakened their case. He agreed with the justices’ opinion on how the inference of the bird not being bred in captivity was drawn. However, he sought help from a precedent in Fisher v. Bell that relied on that judgement to establish that in the eyes of an ordinary man, this would be an “offer for sale” but any statute has to be looked at through the lens of the general law of the country. Therefore, he delivered his verdict in favour of the appellant by ascertaining that the advertisement under the title “classified advertisements” was simply an invitation to treat.

Lord Parker C.J agreed with Ashworth J. on this issue. He quoted Lord Herschell’s judgment in Grainger & Son v. Gough wherein Lord Herschell said “the transmission of a price list does not amount to an offer to supply, as, if it were so, the merchant might find himself involved in any number of contractual obligations which are impossible to carry out, the resources being necessarily limited”. He wanted to put the contention of advertisements being treated as “offer for sale” to bed by using this precedent.

The Queen v. The Judge of The City of London Court

The case involved an action brought by the owners of a barge on the Admiralty side of the City of London Court against the pilot of a steamer to recover damages resulting from the collision in inland waters. The lawsuit was filed in personam against the pilot. Initially, the District Court ruled that the Admiralty side did not have jurisdiction in such a case, and subsequently the plaintiffs appealed.

Citing several authorities in the form of Blackstone’s Commentaries, Caton v. Burton along with other precedents, the appellants firmly contended that under 24 & 25 Vict. c. 10, s. 7, the Admiralty Court had jurisdiction. Their line of argument revolved around the fact that there is a remedy in person against both the owner and the pilot in cases of negligence that lies in the Admiralty Court. According to the appellants, even if they were to accept that Admiralty Courts did not have relevant jurisdiction, Section 3 of the County Courts Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 1868 provided jurisdiction to County courts for any action arising out of damage by a collision for an amount not exceeding three hundred pounds.

Gorell Barnes, Q.C and Butler Aspinall responded by contending over the course of legislation, the Admiralty Court never exercised such a general jurisdiction over torts as contended by the appellants. They emphasized Section 13 of Act 17 & 18 Vict. c. 78 to elaborate on how the right always lay against the owners of a ship and not against any other wrongdoers. Barring Russell v. Hays, in all other similar cases suits have generally been dismissed by the Admiralty Courts for want of jurisdiction. There is a marked difference between the language of Section of Act 24 & 25 Vict. c. 10, which applies to the High Court, and gives jurisdiction “over any claim for damage done by any ship”. However, in the present case, the barge could not be regarded as a “ship” and the licensed pilot’s liability should not exceed the amount of his bond.

Mr Pyke, representing the appellants, contended that proceedings in the Admiralty Court were in personam, and the proceeding in rem was introduced to compel the appearance of the defendant. They failed to find any legal force in the opposition’s argument that the jurisdiction has become obsolete.

Lord Esher relied on Everald v. Kendall to mark precedent on the ratio that the City Court in his Admiralty jurisdiction has assumed to exercise jurisdiction in a case of collision in inland waters between two large barges. He opined that a county court has no jurisdiction if the Admiralty Court does not have jurisdiction as per the County Courts Act. However, there is one exception in the case of The Alina where following Section 2 of the County Courts Admiralty Jurisdiction Amendment Act, 1869 (32 & 33 Vict. c. 51), the county courts had jurisdiction even though the Admiralty Court did not. Lord Esher did not agree with the rule of construction laid down in this particular case. Jessel, M.R, in the Court of Appeal, said that if the words of an Act of Parliament are clear, they must be interpreted in their ordinary meaning unless that produces manifest absurdity.

Lord Esher, however, opined that if the words of an Act are clear, they must be followed even if it leads to a manifest absurdity. The Court has its hands tied when it comes to determining whether the legislature has created an absurdity. It is only if the words of the Act allow two different interpretations and one interpretation lead to an absurdity, then the Court may adopt the other interpretation, that is, which is not absurd. Thus, he decided to follow the ratio of The Alina and concluded that the county courts have jurisdiction concerning the interpretation and application of charter parties, even if Admiralty Courts do not.

While determining the jurisdiction of Admiralty Courts, three things must be considered – the locality, the subject matter of the complaint and the person concerning whom the complaint is made. In the present case, it was concluded that the Court of Admiralty did not have jurisdiction in respect of the collision caused by the pilot’s negligence. This judgement was based upon landmark precedents in the form of The Urania and The Alexandria. Kay, L.J concurred with the opinion of Lord Esher and stated that there exists no precedent to prove that a case lies in the Admiralty Court for the pilot’s negligence. In the absence of any substantive legal authority, the Court has no option but to affirm the decision of the Divisional Court of not entertaining the suit on the Admiralty side.

Sussex peerage case

In the Sussex Peerage Case, the essential question that had to be determined was whether any marriage contracted between parties outside England attracted the provisions of the Royal Marriage Act. On 4th April 1794, Prince Augusts Frederick, the sixth son of his late Majesty married Lady Augusta Murray, the second daughter of the Earl and Countess of Dunmore in Rome. The parties were again regularly married in England and the petitioner was born in Middlesex on 13th January 1974. He was the only male issue of the marriage. Through the Attorney General’s report on 21st August 1843, he expressed his doubt over the validity of such marriage and referred the petition to the House of Lords.

Sir T. Wilde, appearing for the petitioner, alongside Mr Erle and Mr James Wilde straightaway delved into proving the validity of the marriage. He stressed the fact that the marriage was celebrated according to the general church customs followed in England. The Royal Marriage Act mandates taking the King’s consent, signified under the Great Seal, for it to hold. Citing Swift v. Swift, Sir Wilde wanted to establish the point that the provision of pre-consent applies only to marriage contracts within the territories of England. According to the petitioner, the General Marriage Act must be strictly construed failing which it has the potential of restricting the exercise of natural rights.

Considering that the Act also imposes penal consequences in the form of property forfeiture and imprisonment which is why it becomes all the more important to understand the intention of the legislature in enacting the statute. A Prayer-book and a will were presented in the form of evidence by the petitioner, which was not entertained by the bench on the ground that the will was drafted after filing of the present suit. On behalf of the petitioner, the legitimacy of the wills was contended stating that if the Court was satisfied that the person’s written or hearsay evidence did not have any interest in falsifying the fact, then they could be considered to be acceptable evidence. Mr Gunn, who was there as a witness during the marriage, refused to testify in Court fearing prosecution. The bench was also disinclined to allow his statements in evidence.

Nicholas Wiseman, D.D was called to the Court for the Judges’ benefit in understanding foreign law, rather than Roman law in this case. Wiseman emphasized the scope of his authority and expressed his understanding of canon law in Rome. He was a bishop and had considerable knowledge regarding catholic marriages. His competency and level of expertise could not be played down and therefore, the Committee admitted his evidence wherein he stated the marriage contract was valid by the law of Rome. 

On behalf of the petitioner, it was argued that unless an Act of Parliament unequivocally stated its applicability on all Englishmen everywhere, it would generally be presumed that the Act only applies within the territory of England. The Slave Trade Suppression Act and the Act against Bigamy were other legislations that had their applicability extended beyond the boundaries of the country due to the absence of unambiguous terms confining its jurisdiction. It is believed that the principle of all law is to favour marriage as the most important of all-natural and civil rights. Therefore, they also cited Dwarris on Statutes to establish that important principles involving marriage or other civil rights should only be avoided if there is an explicit provision in the concerned statute.

Lord Chief Justice Tindal, delivering the verdict on behalf of all the Judges, said that going by the specific object and purpose of the Act – No marriage of any branch of the Royal Family should be contracted, that is detrimental to the interests of the State, at home or abroad, it would seem that the object is frustrated if the marriage becomes valid only owing to its celebration occurring in a different country. Therefore, he concluded that the claim for title to the heir was not a good claim and the marriage should not be considered valid. Lord Brougham also concurred with the Chief Justice’s opinion and stated that a Prince going abroad and contracting matrimony with a view to the Crown and the rights of Peerage and getting married would demolish the purpose of 12 Geo. 3, c. 11 of the Royal Marriage Act and hence, the marriage should be null and void. 

R v. Harris

The perpetrator, Harris, bit off a part of the victim’s nose.

The act of Parliament under which Harris was held liable defined the crime as “stabbing, cutting, or injuring”.

By applying the literal rule, the court determined that biting someone’s nose off did not qualify as either of the three injuries listed above. As a result, the conviction of the defendant was quashed and Harris was not held guilty.

The case clarified a point on the literal rule while respecting the parliament’s sovereignty that it values precision in drafting and certainty in the law.

R v. Maginnis

Under section “5 (3) of the Abuse of Narcotics Act 1971”, the convict was charged with possessing a prohibited drug with the intent to sell it. His car contained a box containing £500 worth of cannabis. The marihuana, according to the complainant, belonged to a friend who would pick it up later. 

The trial judge determined that his conduct of returning the narcotics to his friend was an act of supply. The suspect immediately entered a guilty plea and filed an appeal. The verdict was reversed by the “Court of Appeal”.The verdict was overturned and the sentence was rescinded. Lord Keith delivered the keynote address. The term “supply,” in its ordinary natural sense, implies more than the simple transition of physical possession of any chattel from one entity to another; it signifies the notion of furnishing or supplying to another anything that is needed or necessary to satisfy the needs or demands of the other. 

He argued that the acquisition of personal capital by the individual supplying is not a necessary factor in constituting supply. Thus, if an individual uses goods or appliances from his employer’s shop for job purposes, it is not a stretch to assume that the shopkeeper provides him with such equipment, although they are not part of the storekeeper’s tools and that he simply is the custodian of them.

Lord Keith in this judgement appeared to be upholding the literal principle, which Lord Brandon, Lord Mackay, and Lord Oliver agreed with. Lord Goff, on the other hand, the dissenter disagreed that a depositor’s delivery to a depositor or a depositee’s redelivery of the goods to a depositor may be described as acts of delivering goods to another. He contended against using the word “supply” in this context in daily speech. He opined in simple terms, the cloakroom assistant, left luggage inspector, warehouseman, and shoe mender do not provide the things that their clients have left with them. 

R v Maginnis [1987] AC 303 elucidates a specific feature of legal reasoning that is often controversial. Since the English language is not often well adapted to presenting precise and comprehensive evidence, courts, especially judges, may be required to view laws in light of the facts of each case. Surprisingly, there is very little legislative oversight about how laws are interpreted; it is more a question of precedent and legal custom.

London and North Eastern Railway v. Berriman

In the course of oiling a railway route, a worker was killed. The wife demanded reimbursement from the railway board, i.e. “London and North Eastern Railways” for failing to keep a lookout for her husband, and his subsequent demise. A law stipulated that anyone who was ‘ laying or fixing ‘the track must be compensated in case of his/her demise while in course of his/her job. 

Whether the widow of a dead railway worker was eligible for damages in the event of her husband’s death was the primary point of concern in this case. Another point of dispute concerned the interpretation of a proviso under the Fatal Accidents Act 1864.

After careful consideration, the judges of the Court ruled that for the death of the husband while working on the railroad, the wife was not entitled to reimbursement since the job of “oiling” did not fall under the categories the statute enumerates. As per the Literal Rule of Statutory Interpretation “, the words of a statute are taken to mean as they are in their natural, ordinary, and grammatical context”. Based on the literal rule of interpretation, ‘oiling’ did not fall under either “relaying or repairing” the track in this situation. The law mandated restitution only specified the latter words. Therefore, the widow was not entitled to any compensation as the judges applied the literal meanings of the terms “relay” and “repair” to the facts of the case. 

The Court’s ruling was, in my view, erroneous. It was flawed because the legislation called for reimbursement in the event of a worker’s death when doing “relay or repair” work; both terms refer to the particular work performed during the job, by the deceased. The deceased worker’s wife should have been entitled to damages because the job of oiling was indeed a work in the process of his job. The Court’s decision to deny compensation solely because the oil was not specifically included in the law was injudicious.

Whiteley v. Chappel

By 14 & 15 Vict. c. 105, s. 3, “if any person, pending or after the election of any guardian [of the poor], shall wilfully, fraudulently, and with intent to affect the result of such election . . .” any person entitled to vote at such election,” he is made liable on conviction to imprisonment for not exceeding three months.

The appellant was accused of impersonating one J. Marston, a person permitted to vote in a guardianship election in the township of Bradford; it was established that Marston was legally eligible as a ratepayer on the rate book to vote in the election, but that he died before the day of the election and casting his vote. The appellant handed over a voting document purportedly signed by Marston to the person in charge of collecting the ballots. The magistrate found the appellant guilty. 

The Court had to decide if the appellant had been wrongfully convicted. 

For the appellant, MeUish, Q.O. (with Mclntyre) argued the appellant could not be found guilty of electoral fraud under 14 & 15 Viet., c. 105, s. 3 since a dead person cannot be said to be “a person entitled to vote.” He was probably within the spirit, but not the text, of the legislation, and both must be in tandem to hold an individual liable. In Russell on Crimes under erstwhile legislation, in which the words were identical to those of 2 Wm. 4, c. 53, s. 49, which made it a misdemeanour to personate “a person entitled or supposed to be entitled to some prize money,” &c.  Brown’s case was cited wherein it was opined only a person prima facie entitled to the prize money could be personated. The expression “any person who shall knowingly personate… any person whose name appears on the register of voters, whether such person is alive or dead,” occur in the Parliamentary Registration Act (6 Viet. c. 18), s. 83; however, under the current statute, the individual must be qualified, that is, should have voted himself. 

Crompton representing the respondent opined  Brown’s Case is effectively overridden by the subsequent cases of Bex v. Martin and Bex v. Cramp, in which the judges concluded that the crime of personating a ” presumed to be eligible ” person could be perpetrated even though the person was dead to the officials’ understanding or conviction. The essence of the offence is voting unlawfully in someone else’s name; the harm is the same irrespective of whether the supposed elector is alive or dead; and argued the Court ought to give such an enactment a liberal interpretation. He cited the case of Reg. v. Hague. In response, Mellish, Q.C. opined the judges in the referenced cases must have interpreted “supposed to be entitled” to imply “supposed by the individual personating.” 

J. LUSH. argued the case cannot be brought within the confines of the legislation interpreting the provisions expansively almost to the point of straining. The legislature has not used expansive enough language to make the personation of a deceased person illegal. The terms “a person entitled to vote” may only imply, without a predetermined interpretation, a person who is eligible to vote at the time of the personation; in this situation, the judge claimed the offence has not been committed. The judges in the cases of Bex v. Martin and Bex v. Cramp did not include any explanations for their decisions, and most likely held that “supposed to be entitled” meant supposed by the individual personating. 

J. HANNEN stated stretching terms in legislation to ensure justice in the present case would be incorrect, as it would set a precedent that could have dangerous implications in other cases.  J. HATES concurred. 

Whiteley is an example of how the literal law of statutory interpretation can often lead to ludicrous consequences in the implementation of the legislation. 

Brock v. Director of Public Prosecutions and Regina v. Knightsbridge

Even though somewhat different questions were raised in these two cases, the point of contention was essentially the same. The interpretation of the phrase “any dog of the type known as the pit bull terrier” in “s 1(1)(a) of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991”.The term “type” concerning dogs connotes a meaning much broader than “breed,” and it adequately was deduced by the court in the immediate case that the particular dog in concern was  “of the kind known as the pit bull terrier” under the “section 1” of “the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991”, deeming it a misdemeanour to allow the dog in public without chaining it up. However, to deem the presence of the dog a “misdemeanour” in public his traits need to markedly adhere to the standards prescribed for the breed. However, because part of that standard encompasses the behaviour of the dog, its aggressiveness to be particular, the statute enumerates the court should consider any information about a dog’s behavioural traits to be of relevance.

On 5 June 1992, the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court rejected Gary Dunne’s application for the judicial review of a ruling by the “Knightsbridge Crown Court” which had rejected his petition against a judgement delivered on December 30th 1991 by the “Wells Street Magistrates’ Court” charging him for a crime committed under “section 1 (2) (d) of the 1991 Act”.

However, in a precedent, the “Queen’s Bench Divisional Court” had allowed an appeal by one Karen Brock’s in a case from the “Wood Green Crown Court”. Her appeal had been rejected in a judgement delivered on August 4th 1992 by the “Barnet Justices” of the latter court for a felony committed under “section 1 (3)” of  “The Dangerous Dogs Act” for possessing a pit bull terrier named Buster. The “Crown Court” in the immediate case had inaccurately deduced that Buster’s behaviour was insignificant to the facts at hand. The rationale put forth by Mr Dunne’s that the term ‘type’ in “section 1” implied the same as’ breed ‘was dismissed.

Normally, the term breed references a recognised body, “the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom” for instance. However, considering pit bull terriers were not domesticated in the United Kingdom for a long time, no standards have been enumerated for them by the Kennel Club. However in the United States Pitbulls had been bred for a long time, the “American Bulldog Association (ABDA)” established in 1909 had typified an exhaustive set of guidelines for pit bull terriers, primarily. 

After gauging that the word “breed” had a narrower meaning than “type” it was expected of the court to enumerate some criteria in deciding the demarcations of the phrase “any dog of the type known as the pit bull terrier”.  It was for the “Crown Court” to decide based on the evidence what the checklist or limits should be. It was expected of both courts to use “the ABDA”  benchmark as a guide after the hearing evidence. As mentioned above a breed standard for pit bull terriers had been established in the United States. However, the courts based on the evidence presented before them, opined even if a dog did not meet the specifications as enumerated by “ABDA” its breed could not be solely determined on the same.

The court inferred that a dog was “of the type known as the pit bull terrier” if its character traits considerably matched the “ABDA’s framework”, or even if the dog nearly exactly or, was close to, or possessed a significant number of features of a pit bull terrier as the ABDA specifications enumerate. It was additionally argued by Miss Brock that in determining if a dog was “of the type known as the pit bull terrier,” the behavioural patterns of the dog and whether or not it had demonstrated harmful propensities should be considered by the court. The following were listed by the ABDA as the basic characteristics of a pit bull terrier: i)  propensity to play games (ii) bellicosity  (iii) energy (iv) capacity to wrestle  (v) ability and frequency of biting. ‘ If the framework suggested by the “ABDA” is an appropriate baseline, it must follow that it is important to consider whether or not a dog demonstrated pit bull terrier behavioural patterns. Even if inconclusive, such evidence can not be ignored.

The case, according to me, clarified that in all legislation, words and phrases have the potential to create ambiguity that can only be addressed through legal interpretation. That interpretation is a fanciful process that invariably involves the judiciary in the creation of law. The issue emerges as to what methodologies the judges should employ when defining that term or phrase. The rules of statutory interpretation have been created to aid judges in this process. These have been developed over the centuries by judges, without any Parliamentary intervention. However, it can be asserted that Parliament is still the supreme law-making authority. If it does not agree with the court’s interpretation, it has the option of enacting new legislation that upends the decision of the court.


A literal construction of statutes comes with its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. It cannot be denied that anybody possessing the required know-how of the language can constructively understand and interpret a statute. Not only does it ensure uniformity but also reduces the scope of unnecessary litigation. It is also considered to be instrumental in encouraging drafting precision. Countries like the UK are heavily legislature oriented and less judiciary dependent. The authoritative status assumed by the legislature is what is considered to be the fundamental reason for following the Literal construction rule. However, there are certain drawbacks that need to be eliminated in order to ensure a healthy state of law and affairs within the country.

The most common problem that leads to disputes is an interpretation of a legislative instrument. Clarity and effectiveness of a legal provision go a long way in reducing court battles. Under a literal construction regime, the scope of ambiguity and uncertainty provides the opportunity for unmeritorious litigants to exploit the loophole present in the system. It also leads to the loss of time and cost of a litigant who is led to court with his best interest at heart only to be disappointed later by the legal complexities associated with interpreting a statute under this system of statutory construction. Effective in reducing judicial adventurism, but at what cost remains the foremost question in this system. It reduces the role of judges to a considerable extent which has led to severe questioning of the very existence of courts. If every piece of legislation was to be drafted and interpretation regulated by the law-making body, then the existence of courts would be nothing but a farce.



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