Under this rule the considers what the statute actually says, rather than what it might mean. In order to achieve this, the judge will give the words in the statute of literal meaning, their plan ordinary everyday meaning, even if the effect of this to produce what might be considered as an otherwise unjust or undesirable outcome. The literal rule says that the intention of parliament is best found in the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used. The approach works well when there is no ambiguity in the words used in the statute.
The use of the rule is illustrated by the case of Fisher versus bell. The Restriction of Offensive Weapons of this type in his shop window in the arcade at Broadmead. The Divisional Court held that he could not be convicted because giving the words in the statute a tight literal meaning.
Mr. Bell had not offered knives for sale. In the law contract, placing something in a shop window is not technically an offer for sale; it is merely an invitation to treat. It is the customer who makes an offer to the shop when he proffers money for an item on sale. The court upheld that under the literal meaning of the offer, the shopkeeper had not made an offer to sell and so was not guilty of the offense. Parliament subsequently changed the law to make it clear that displaying a flick a flick in a shop window was an offense.
Advantages of Literal Rules
- Proponents of the plain meaning rule claim it prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues.
- They also point out that ordinary people and lawyers do not have extensive access to secondary sources and thus depending on the ordinary meaning of the words is the safest route.
- It encourages precision in drafting.
Disadvantages of Literal Rules
Having a number of advantages it shows the number of limitations as are :
- Opponents of the plain meaning rule claim that the rule rests on the erroneous assumptions that words have a fixed meaning. Words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of the statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plan meaning survives.
- Sometimes the use of the literal rule may defeat the intention of parliament. For example, in the case of whitely versus Chappel, the court came to the reluctant conclusion that Whitely could not be convicted of impersonating ‘’any person entitled to vote’’ at an election because the person he impersonated was dead. Using a literal construction of the relevant statutory provision, the deceased was not ‘’a person entitled to vote’’. This, surely, could not have been the intention of parliament. However, the literal rule does not take into account the consequences of a literal interpretation, only whether words have a clear meaning that makes sense within that context. If parliament does not like the literal interpretation, then it must amend the legislation.
- It obliges the courts to fall back on standard common law principles of statutory interpretation. The legislation is drawn up with these principles in mind. However, these principles may not be appropriate to constitutional interpretations, which by its nature tends to lay down general principles. It is said that it seems wrong to parcel the Constitution as it were a Finance Act.
- Clearly, the literal approach has another disadvantage in that one judge’s literal interpretation might be very different from another’s. Casey says. ‘’what may seem plain to one judge may seem perverse and unreal to another’’.
- It ignores the limitations of language.
- To place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of the words is to assume an unattainable perfection in craftsmanship.
- Judges have tended excessively to emphasize the literal meaning of wider contexts.