The conflict between giving a literal interpretation or a purposive interpretation to a statute or a provision in a statute is perennial. It can be settled only if the draftsman gives a long-winded explanation in drafting the law but this would result in an awkward draft that might well turn out to be unintelligible. The interpreter has, therefore, to consider not only the text of the law but the context in which the law was enacted and the social context in which the law should be interpreted.

The Intention of the Legislature

This was articulated rather felicitously by Lord Bingham of Cornhill in R. v. Secretary of State for Health ex parte Quintavalle (2003) when it was said:

“8. The basic task of the court is to ascertain and give effect to the true meaning of what Parliament has said in the enactment to be construed. But that is not to say that attention should be confined and a literal interpretation given to the particular provisions which give rise to difficulty. Such an approach not only encourages immense prolixity in drafting, since the draftsman will feel obliged to provide expressly for every contingency which may possibly arise.

It may also (under the banner of loyalty to the will of Parliament) lead to the frustration of that will, because undue concentration on the minutiae of the enactment may lead the court to neglect the purpose which Parliament intended to achieve when it enacted the statute. Every statute other than a pure consolidating statute is, after all, enacted to make some change, or address some problem, or remove some blemish, or effect some improvement in the national life.

The court’s task, within the permissible bounds of interpretation, is to give effect to Parliament’s purpose. So the controversial provisions should be read in the context of the statute as a whole, and the statute as a whole should be read in the historical context of the situation which led to its enactment.

9. There is, I think, no inconsistency between the rule that statutory language retains the meaning it had when Parliament used it and the rule that a statute is always speaking. If Parliament, however long ago, passed an Act applicable to dogs, it could not properly be interpreted to apply to cats; but it could properly be held to apply to animals which were not regarded as dogs when the Act was passed but are so regarded now. The meaning of “cruel and unusual punishments” has not changed over the years since 1689, but many punishments which were not then thought to fall within that category would now be held to do so.

The courts have frequently had to grapple with the question whether a modern invention or activity falls within old statutory language: see Bennion, Statutory Interpretation, 4th ed (2002) Part XVIII, Section 288. A revealing example is found in Grant v Southwestern and County Properties Ltd [1975] Ch 185, where Walton J had to decide whether a tape recording fell within the expression “document” in the Rules of the Supreme Court. Pointing out (page 190) that the furnishing of information had been treated as one of the main functions of a document, the judge concluded that the tape recording was a document.”

In the same decision, Lord Steyn suggested that the pendulum has swung towards giving a purposive interpretation to statutes and the shift towards purposive construction is today not in doubt, influenced in part by European ideas, European Community jurisprudence and European legal culture. It was said:

“……. the adoption of a purposive approach to construction of statutes generally, and the 1990 Act [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990] in particular, is amply justified on wider grounds. In Cabell v Markham (1945) Justice Learned Hand explained the merits of purposive interpretation, at p 739:

“Of course it is true that the words used, even in their literal sense, are the primary, and ordinarily the most reliable, source of interpreting the meaning of any writing: be it a statute, a contract, or anything else. But it is one of the surest indexes of a mature developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary; but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.”

The pendulum has swung towards purposive methods of construction. This change was not initiated by the teleological approach of European Community jurisprudence, and the influence of European legal culture generally, but it has been accelerated by European ideas: see, however, a classic early statement of the purposive approach by Lord Blackburn in River Wear Commissioners v Adamson (1877).

In any event, nowadays the shift towards purposive interpretation is not in doubt. The qualification is that the degree of liberality permitted is influenced by the context, eg social welfare legislation and tax statutes may have to be approached somewhat differently.”

To put it in the words of Lord Millett: “We are all purposive constructionists now.”[1]

In Bennion on Statutory Interpretation it is said that: “General judicial adoption of the term ‘purposive construction’ is recent, but the concept is not new. Viscount Dilhorne, citing Coke, said that while it is now fashionable to talk of a purposive construction of a statute the need for such a construction has been recognized since the seventeenth century.

In fact the recognition goes considerable further back than that. The difficulties over statutory interpretation belong to the language, and there is unlikely to be anything very novel or recent about their solution…….. Little has changed over problems of verbal meaning since the Barons of the Exchequer arrived at their famous resolution in Heydon’s Case.

27 Legislation is still about remedying what is thought to be a defect in the law. Even the most ‘progressive’ legislator, concerned to implement some wholly normal concept of social justice, would be constrained to admit that if the existing law accommodated the notion there would be no need to change it. No legal need that is ….”

In Abhiram singh v. sundarlal patwa (1992), the Supreme Court said,

“Ordinarily, if a statute is well-drafted and debated in Parliament there is little or no need to adopt any interpretation other than a literal interpretation of the statute. However, in a welfare State like ours, what is intended for the benefit of the people is not fully reflected in the text of a statute. In such legislations, a pragmatic view is required to be taken and the law interpreted purposefully and realistically so that the benefit reaches the masses.

Of course, in statutes that have a penal consequence and affect the liberty of an individual or a statute that could impose a financial burden on a person, the rule of literal interpretation would still hold good.”

[1] ‘Construing Statutes’, (1999) 2 Statute Law Review 107, p.108 quoted in ‘Principles of

Statutory Interpretation’ by Justice G.P. Singh 14th Edition revised by Justice A.K. Patnaik

at page 34