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The Literal Rule of Statutory Interpretation
The literal rule of statutory interpretation should be the first rule applied by judges. Under the literal rule, the words of the statute are given their natural or ordinary meaning and applied without the judge seeking to put a gloss on the words or seek to make sense of the statute.
Some examples of the literal rule:
R v Harris (1836) 7 C & P 446  Case summary
Fisher v Bell [1961] 1 QB 394  Case summary 
Whitely v Chappel (1868) LR 4 QB 147    Case summary
Problems with the literal rule
  • There can be disagreement as to what amounts to the ordinary or natural meaning:
R v Maginnis [1987] AC 303               Case summary 
  • Creates loopholes in the law:
R v Harris   (1836) 7 C & P 446       Case summary
Fisher v Bell [1961] 1 QB 394         Case summary
Partridge v Crittenden                   Case summary
  • Leads to injustice:
London and North Eastern Railway v Berriman [1946] AC 278      Case summary     
  • Creates awkward precedents which require Parliamentary time to correct


  • Fails to recognise the complexities and limitations of English language


  • Undermines public confidence in the law


Advantages of the literal rule
  • Restricts the role of the judge


  • Provides no scope for judges to use their own opinions or prejudices


  • Upholds the separation of powers


  • Recognises Parliament as the supreme law maker
 See also the Golden rule and Mischief rule of statutory interpretation

The Literal Rule of Statutory Interpretation