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The Purposive Approach to Statutory Interpretation


The purposive approach to statutory interpretation is used in the European Court of Justice. The literal rule would be of little use in the European Courts since there are several languages in operation and translation is not an exact science.  Domestic judges are required to apply the Purposive approach whenever applying a piece of EU law.

Lord Simon explained the purposive approach in Maunsell v Olins[1975] AC 373 Case summary



'The first task of a court of construction is to put itself in the shoes of the draftsman – to consider what knowledge he had and, importantly, what statutory objective he had …being thus placed…the court proceeds to ascertain the meaning of the statutory language.’


Thus the purposive approach to statutory interpretation seeks to look for the purpose of the legislation before interpreting the words. It has often been said that the purposive approach is a mixture of the domestic rules, however, whereas the domestic rules require the courts to apply the literal rule first to look at the wording of the Act, the purposive approach starts with the mischief rule in seeking the purpose or intention of Parliament.
It is therefore a much more flexible approach giving judges greater scope to develop the law in line with what they perceive to be Parliament's intention. The purposive approach more readily embraces the use of extrinsic aids to assist in finding Parliament's intention. For example in relaxing the rule on reference to Hansard in Pepper v Hart the House of Lords adopted a purposive approach.
Pepper v Hart [1992] 3 WLR 1032          Case summary
The courts are required to apply the purposive approach when interpreting EU law. The courts have used it when interpreting domestic legislation to give an interpretation in line with EU law. For example see:
Pickstone v Freemans Plc [1989] AC 66         Case summary
The purposive approach has been highly influential and judges have applied it when interpreting domestic legislation which has no connection with EU law:
Pepper v Hart [1992] 3 WLR 1032           Case summary
Advantages of the purposive approach
  • It is a flexible approach which allows judges to develop the law in line with Parliament's intention (eg Maunsell v Olins)
  • It allows judges to cope with situations unforeseen by Parliament (eg Quintavalle)
  • It allows the law to develop to cover advances in medical science (eg Quintavalle)
  • It allows the courts to give effect to EU Directives (Pickstone v Freemans)
  • Allowing reference to Hansard makes it easier for the courts to discover Parliament's intention (Pepper v Hart)
Disadvantages of the purposive approach
  • Judges are given too much power to develop the law and usurping the power of Parliament
  • Judges become law makers infringing the Separation of Powers (Montesquieu)
  • There is scope for judicial bias in deciding what Parliament intended
  • It assumes Parliament has one intention and ignores the fact that Parliament is divided on party lines
  • Allowing reference to Hansard may lead to prolonged examination of irrelevant material by lawyers which adds to the cost and length of litigation (See Lord Mackay in Pepper v Hart)
The Purposive Approach to Statutory Interpretation