Using cases, describe how the golden rule can be used

The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and is used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to a ‘manifest absurdity’.

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The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and is used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to a ‘manifest absurdity’.


Much of our law comes from Acts of Parliament. These are also known as statutes and a large number of them are passed by Parliament each year. The law needs to be clear and certain but there are many occasions when the meaning of a statute or specific part of it is the subject of a dispute in a case which comes before the courts. In such cases the court has the difficult task of deciding upon the exact meaning of a particular word or purpose.


The courts are helped in this task by a number of well tried and tested rules of statutory interpretation. Judges have their own preferences as to these rules and are free to choose which approach to adopt depending upon the circumstances.


The various rules are the literal rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule and the purposive approach.


In order to better understand how the golden rule works we need to understand the way the literal rule works as the golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and some would say came about due to the shortcomings of the literal rule. The literal rule involves applying the 'plain, ordinary literal meaning’ of words – even if this would lead to a manifest absurdity. (Lord Esher in R v Judge of the City of London Court (1892)). The judge will be assisted by references to a dictionary as these will give the plain ordinary meaning of words. It is likely that reference will be made to a dictionary in common use at the time such as the Oxford English Dictionary. This sometimes meant that this lead to a harsh or ridiculous outcome but the principle behind this was that if the words used were clear then they must be applied as they represent the intention of Parliament. It was after all for judges to apply the law. A good example of how the use of the literal rule could lead to an unsatisfactory outcome is the case of Whiteley v Chappell (1868) in which the defendant impersonated a dead person by using their name in an election. The legislation concerned stated that it was an offence to 'impersonate any person entitled to vote'. Since the person was dead he was not entitled to vote so there was no offence. The absurdity here was that impersonation was something that Parliament wanted to prevent and it is possible that the decision went against Parliament's intention.


The golden rule is a modification of the literal rule and is used when the literal interpretation of words would lead to a ‘manifest absurdity’. The rule can be used in more than one way. It has two particular applications: a narrow approach and a broad approach. The narrow approach is used where the meaning of the word which is being interpreted is ambiguous i.e. has more than one meaning. The judge then applies the meaning which best suits the context in which the word is being interpreted. The use and application of the golden rule can probably be best illustrated by the leading cases of R v Allen (1872) and Adler v George (1964). The reasoning and justification behind the use of the golden rule is that it reduces the potential for harshness and supports public policy (as in Sigsworth (1935) as can be seen later).


The term 'narrow approach’ is a reflection on some judges views on how the golden rule should be used. It suggests that it is more limited and restricted than other rules such as the mischief rule or purposive approach. It was Lord Reid in Jones v DPP (1962) who reminded us of the importance of not trying to give a meaning to a word used in a statute which goes beyond what is reasonable.


The case of R v Allen (1872) is a good illustration of the narrow approach in use. In this case the defendant was charged with bigamy under Section 57 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 which made it an offence to ‘marry’ whilst your spouse is still alive and not divorced. The ambiguous word was the word ‘marry’. The court decided that in order to make sense of the provision the word should be interpreted as meaning to go through a second ceremony of marriage. The word can also mean to become legally married but because someone who is already married cannot legally marry someone else, the more general meaning of the word was preferred. This same meaning was definitely preferred in the unusual case of Emily Horne who was convicted of serial bigamy having gone through five 'marriages' without having applied to annul the first marriage.


The broader application of the golden rule can be illustrated by the case of Adler v George 1964. The defendant was charged with obstructing a guard in the execution of his duty after being challenged by a sentry at a MOD establishment. The wording of the relevant provision included the phrase ‘in the vicinity of’.  The defendant argued that this meant that he could not be charged and convicted because he was actually already inside the establishment whereas ‘in the vicinity’ meant outside or in the proximity or area. The court decided that this would lead to an absurd result and interpreted the words so as to include the situation which had arisen where the individual was already on the premises. If the golden rule were used in Whiteley v Chappell it is possible that a different outcome may have come about by avoiding an absurd result.


Another example of the court’s willingness to modify a word or provision to avoid an absurd result is the case of Sigsworth (1935). A son had murdered his mother. The mother had not made a will so the estate was to be distributed to her nearest next of kin under the Administration of Estates Act 1925. This meant that her son should have inherited as her ‘issue’. The court had a problem with this on public policy grounds in that it was repugnant for a murderer to benefit from the killing. The court applied the golden rule in preference to the literal rule and interpreted the word ‘issue’ so as to exclude someone who had killed the deceased.



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