In law, the Golden rule, or British rule, is a form of statutory construction traditionally applied by English courts. The other two are the “plain meaning rule” (also known as the “literal rule”) and the “mischief rule.”
The golden rule allows a judge to depart from a word’s normal meaning in order to avoid an absurd result1. The term “golden rule” seems to have originated in the 1854 case of Mattison v. Hart as per Chief Justice Jervis’ propounding and implies a degree of enthusiasm for this particular rule of construction over alternative rules that has not been shared by all subsequent judges. For example, Viscount Simon made a point of including this note in a 1940 decision: “The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning2.”
Like the plain meaning rule, the golden rule 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 golden rule dictates that a 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. History and evolution of the Golden Rule
This rule is founded on Justice Parke (later Lord Wensleydale)’s enunciation in Becke v Smith where he stated thus: “It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries3,
or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience but no further.” Twenty years later, Lord Wensleydale restated the rule in different words in Grey v Pearson75 thus: “In construing statutes, and all written instruments, the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity or inconsistency, but not farther.”
With time, the rule continues to become more refined and therefore to be a more precise and effective tool for the courts. More than a century after Grey v. Pearson, a court added this caveat: “Nowadays we should add to ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ the words in their context and according to the appropriate linguistic register.” In summary, 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 Lord Simon of Glaisdale, reasons for judgment in Stock v. Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd4 at 235 examples, 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. The rule was applied in this second sense in Sigsworth, Re, Bedford v Bedford where the court applied the rule to section 46 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925.
This statute required that the court should “issue” someone’s inheritance in certain circumstances5. The court held that no one should profit from a crime, and so used the golden rule to prevent an undesirable result, even though there was only one meaning of the word “issue.” A son murdered his mother and then committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on whom 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 family6. The Golden Rule
The rule was defined by Lord Wensleydale in the Grey v Pearson case (1857) as: “The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.” So, The Golden Rule is a modification of The Literal Rule to be used to avoid an absurd outcome.
The Golden Rule was used in the R v Allen case (1872). In this the defendant was charged with bigamy (s.57 of offences against the person act 1861) which, under statutes states: ‘whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence’. Under The Literal Rule, bigamy would be impossible because civil courts do not recognize second marriages, so The Golden Rule was applied to determine that the word ‘marry’ should be seen as ‘to go through ceremony’ and the conviction was upheld.
The Golden Rule was applied in the Adler v George case (1964). Under section 3 of the official secrets act (1920) it was an offence to obstruct HM Forces in the vicinity of a prohibited area. Adler was arrested for obstructing forces whilst in a prohibited area. Under The Literal Rule, Adler was not in the VICINITY of the area – he was IN the area – and so was not infringing the terms of the act. The Golden Rule was applied to extend the meaning of ‘vicinity’ and avoid the possible absurd outcome.
The main advantage of The Golden Rule is that drafting errors in statutes can be corrected immediately. This is seen in the R v Allen (1872) case where the loopholes were closed, the decision was in line with parliament’s intentions and it gave a more just outcome. A major disadvantage of The Golden Rule is that judges can technically change the law by changing the meaning of words in statutes. They can, potentially infringing the separation of powers between legal and legislature.
The Golden Rule won’t help if there is no absurdity in the statute. For example the London and North Eastern Railway v Berriman (1946) case, where the widow couldn’t get compensation because the wording of the statute didn’t allow for this circumstance.
The ‘Golden Rule’ as introduced by Lord Wensleydale in Grey v Pearson but perhaps better expressed by Lord Blackburn in River Wear Commissioners v Adamson “We are to take the whole statute and construe it all together, giving the words their ordinary signification, unless when so applied they produce an inconsistency, or an absurdity or inconvenience so great as to convince the Court that the intention could not have been to use them in their ordinary signification….”
In R v Allen and the Offence Against the Persons Act (1872), a case of bigamy, it was held that bigamy meant to take part in the ceremony of marriage a whilst still married to another person, the statute could be applied successfully thanks to the application of the ‘Golden Rule’. Another example would be that found in Re: Sigsworth and the Administration of Estates Act 1925.
The golden rule only rescues the court in tiny number of instances. The point was made by John Willis in a famous article where he asked “What is absurdity?” Absurdity is as vague as plain meaning. It is a matter of personal opinion, more susceptible to the influence of personal prejudice. Golden rule is just a device to achieve desired result and to escape from sum of the more updatable effect of literal rule (Nothman v. Barnet London Borough Council).
The Law Commission criticised that there is no clear means to test the existence of the characteristics of absurdity, inconsistency, or to measure their quality or extent. This became known as “Lord Wensleydale’s golden rule”. It only applies where the words are ambiguous. An interpretation that is not absurd is to be preferred to one that is. An example is: R v Allen7 The Law Commission (1969) noted that:
* The rule provided no clear means to test the existence of the characteristics of absurdity, inconsistency or inconvenience, or to measure their quality or extent. * As it seemed that “absurdity” was in practice judged by reference to whether a particular interpretation was irreconcilable with the general policy of the legislature “the golden rule turns out to be a less explicit form of the mischief rule”.
Table of cases
Grey v Pearson
Mattison v. Hart
Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries
Stock v. Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd
R v Allen case (1872).
London and North Eastern Railway v Berriman (1946)
Nothman v. Barnet London Borough Council
Learning the Law Glanville Williams 12th Ed. (A.T.H Smith) ISBN 0421744200
Osborn’s Concise Law Dictionary 9th Ed. (S. Bone) ISBN 042175340 An introduction to the British Constitution I.M.M. MacPhail SBN: 7131 12662 The English Legal System 6th Ed. Slapper & Kelly ISBN 1 85941 7558 Cases and Commentary On Tort 4th Ed. Harvey & Marston ISBN 0273 638432 Torts 8th Edition Micheal A Jones ISBN 0199255334
Law of Tort John Cooke 6th Ed. ISBN 0582 473489
English Legal System 2003 –2004 Q & A Slapper & Kelly ISBN 185941 754x http://wolf-nt.wlv.ac.uk/