Golden rule (law)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

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 result.

The term "golden rule" seems to have originated in an 1854 court ruling,[1] 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, one judge 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 meaning."[2]

Circumstances of use[edit]

Although it points to a kind of middle ground between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule, the golden rule is not, in a strict sense, a compromise between them. 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[edit]

The rule is usually based on part of Becke v Smith (1836) 2 M&W 195 per Justice Parke (later 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.

Twenty years later, Lord Wensleydale restated the rule in different words in Grey v. Pearson (1857) 6 HL Cas 61, 106; 10ER 1216, 1234. He wrote:

[I]n 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' ".[3]

Worked examples[edit]

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.

The rule was applied in this second sense in In Sigsworth, Re, Bedford v Bedford (1935; Ch 89), 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 circumstances. 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 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chief Justice Jervis, in Mattison v. Hart, [1854], 14 C.B. 357, at p. 385.
  2. ^ Viscount Simon, in Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries, [1940] A.C. 1014, at p. 1022.
  3. ^ Lord Simon of Glaisdale, reasons for judgment in Stock v. Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd. [1978] 1 W.L.R. 231, at p. 235.

External links[edit]