Thursday, July 1, 2010

THE GOLDEN RULE

The rule is usually based on part of Becke v Smith (1836) (who became Lord Wensleydale), which states:

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 statute itself, 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.

This is supported by Lord Wensleydale in Grey v. Pearson (1857) 6 HL Cas 61, 106; 10ER 1216, 1234, who said:

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.
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 example, 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. Section 46 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925, required that the court should "issue" someone's inheritance in certain circumstances. In Sigsworth, Re, Bedford v Bedford (1935; Ch 89) 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". The facts of this case are often misreported; a son murdered his mother and committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on who 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 family.



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