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Statutory Interpretation

Extreme care is usually taken by lawmakers in the drafting of law in order to structure their words to cover as many loopholes as possible and be void of ambiguity. But lawmakers remain human and so it is almost impossible for them to be perfect. Words often have multiple meanings and people would always try to interpret words in ways which best suit their purposes. It is the function of the judiciary to determine the true intention of the lawmakers from the words used. This is why no random person can interpret the laws, as there are rules followed by members of the judiciary in the interpretation of statutes. This privilege granted to the courts to interpret laws does not give the courts the authority to rewrite the laws. The court is merely to make the law read in the way it thinks proper. This view was stated by Bairamian, J.S.C., in Okumagba v. Egbe when he said that the office of the judge is jus dicere, not jus dare- to state the law and not to give it. However, the court may correct a law when there is very obviously a mistake as stated by the Supreme Court in Yusufu v. Obasanjo, R. v. Eze and Ejor v. Inspector-General of Police.

Amongst the rules followed by the courts in the interpretation of statutes are basic presumptions.

Basic presumptions.

While interpreting statutes, there are some rebuttable presumptions which would be held by the courts. The courts would usually assume that statutes are not intended to have some consequences unless stated otherwise. Some of the basic presumptions are as follows.

Presumption against change in existing law: The courts in the interpretation of statutes would always presume that there is no intention to change the existing law. The court would only hold otherwise if the new law expressly states that there is a change in the existing law or if it is impossible to read the new law without accepting a change in existing law. In Day v. Brown Rigg, the court favoured the position that the existing law had not been changed.

Presumption against repeal: Closely related to the above presumption is the presumption against repeal. The courts are usually of the position that existing laws have not been repealed simply because a new law on the matter has been enacted. It is usually necessary that the new law expressly repeals the old law or the two are so inconsistent that the new law cannot be in force unless the old law is taken to be repealed.

Presumption against strict criminal liability: One principle which is usually adopted in common law is that it is better for nine criminals to escape punishment than for one innocent person to be wrongly punished. In line with this, there is usually a presumption against strict criminal liability and a person cannot be pronounced guilty have any crime unless there was also an intention to commit the crime. It is not only a guilty act which is to be proved, but also a guilty mind. If the statute prescribes that the offence is one of strict criminal liability, then the presumption is rebutted as stated in R. v. Efana and Police v. Yahaya.

Presumption against deprivation of property: Any law which encroaches on a vested right is usually interpreted strictly. As regards property, there is a presumption of the law against a person being denied of their property unless the law expressly and unambiguously states so. Even when the law expressly states so, compensation should be paid and the courts shall not extend the law beyond what is provided for. See Garba v. Federal Civil Service Commission and Ohuka v. The State.

Presumption against ouster of jurisdiction: The courts usually hold a presumption against ouster clauses which purport to oust the jurisdiction of the courts. Where such ouster clauses are provided for, they must be express. Once they have been expressly and clearly provided for, the court has no choice but to accept that its jurisdiction has been ousted as stated by Nnaemeka-Agu, J.S.C. in Nwosu v. Imo State Environmental Sanitation Authority.

Other presumptions: Other presumptions which are followed by the courts include presumption against retrospectivity of laws, presumption against irregularity of law, presumption against impossibility as the law shall not ask anyone to do what is impossible, presumption against injustice, presumption against absurdity, etc.

Statutory definitions.

Most major statutes have interpretation sections which define technical words which may have been used to prevent ambiguity. Section 318 of the 1999 constitution contains such interpretations of some words used in the constitution and the Criminal Code also has an interpretation section. This helps to reduce confusion in the interpretation of statutes. To supplement all of these is the Interpretation Act which makes provision for general words and phrases used in statutes. For example, the Interpretation Act provides that words that refer to the masculine gender shall also be taken to refer to the feminine gender and words that refer to singular shall also refer to the plural and vice versa.

Intrinsic guides.

Intrinsic guides refer to the parts of the statute which may be used by the courts in interpreting statutes. They include the preambles, headings and titles, marginal notes and explanatory notes.

Preamble: Statutes often have preambles, and they are becoming more common in modern statutes. When they are used, they give an insight into the reason the statute was enacted. An example of this is the preamble in the 1999 constitution. The court in Okeke v. Attorney-General of Anambra State read the preamble to Decree number 13 of 1984 as part of the decree in order to better understand it.

Headings and Titles: Heading and Titles may be used to interpret a statute if the main body of the statute is ambiguous. The Supreme Court stated in U.T.C.(Nig.) Ltd. v. Pamotei that titles and headings should only be used in the interpretation of statutes when the body of the statute is ambiguous. The long title often provides the reason for the statute and this is often instrumental in the interpretation of the statute.

Marginal notes: Strictly speaking, marginal notes are not part of the statute just as headings are not. They may however be used in the interpretation of statutes as in cases like Oloyo v. Alegbe. Where the provisions of the statute are clear, the marginal notes may be ignored as they are not binding as laws.

Explanatory notes: Explanatory notes are usually inserted after the law has been passed and they are more common in modern statutes. They do not form part of the statute, but may serve as pointers to the intention of the legislature while passing the statute.

Common law rules.

The major common law principles which guide the courts in the interpretation of statutes are something like canons of interpretation. However, these rules are not absolute. It happens often that while one principle supports one perspective of interpretation, another principle would support an opposing interpretation. The major common law rules that shall be observed are the literal rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule and the ejusdem generis rule.

The literal rule.

The literal rule prescribes that words should be given their ordinary meaning when statutes are being interpreted. It is believed that the ordinary meanings of words contain the true intention of the legislature. This view was supported by Tridal, C.J. in the Sussex Peerage Case. It is believed that the mere inconvenience of words when applied in their ordinary sense is not enough to depart from the ordinary meanings of the words. This view was shown in the cases of Adegbenro v. Akintola and Okumagba v. Egbe. The harshness of the rule was shown in the case of R. v. Bangaza where the defendants faced capital punishment for an offence committed while they were infants because they were not infants anymore when they were convicted.

The problem with this rule is that words often have more than one meaning which can lead to ambiguity. This is what leads to the next rule.

The golden rule.

Where the application of the original meaning of the words used in the statute would create absurdity, inconsistency or ambiguity, the courts may choose to apply the secondary meaning of the words used. The assumption is that lawmakers do not intend anything that is absurd. The rule was formulated in Becke v. Smith where Parke, B., stated that it is important the give words their ordinary meaning when interpreting statutes, but the words may be modified if the ordinary meaning leads to absurdity. The words should only be modified as much as is required to remove the absurdity, and no further. The kind of absurdity that is referred to is when it would be illogical, either because the statute contradicts itself or it contradicts a principle in law. A statute cannot be said to create absurdity in its literal translation simply because it is inconvenient for one of the parties.

In Re Singsworth, a son who had murdered his mother was exempted from inheriting the deceased’s estate to prevent him from benefiting from his crime. In R. v. Eze, the court construed “or” as “and” to make sense of the definition of an indictable offence. This interpretation was adopted by the Supreme Court in Ejor v. Inspector-General of Police and given legislative endorsement through a subsequent amendment of the section.

Mischief rule.

The mischief rule was laid down in Heydon’s case. In the application of this rule, the intention of the judiciary is used to interpret a statute and not just the written words. In doing this, it is important for the court to consider the state of affairs before the law was made and the ill in the society which the law was made be correct. The court is then to interpret the law in line with such. It is known as the mischief rule because the court is to interpret the law in such a way that it applies to the mischief it was made to correct. In finding the intention of the legislature, the court may consult the preamble of the statute and other extrinsic sources. For example, if a law is made against littering in classes to improve cleanliness in the faculty and X litters right outside a classroom, the law may be interpreted to extend to outside the classrooms to suit the purpose for which the law was created. This rule was employed by courts in Smith v. Hughes and Akerele v. Inspector-General of Police.

The mischief rule may also be used to prevent a law made for one purpose from being used for another purpose. In Gorris v. Scott, a statutory order required that animals on board a ship be kept in pens of a specified size. The defendant violated the rule which caused the plaintiff’s sheep to get washed overboard during a storm. The plaintiff sued for breach of a statutory duty. The court gave its decision in favour of the defendant since the rule was made to prevent the spreading of diseases and not to prevent the washing of animals overboard. It was held that the law should be applied to the mischief for which it was created.

Where the words of the statute are clear, the rule may be used to expand or restrict the interpretation. In Corkery v. Carpentar, a bicycle was interpreted to be a “carriage” in the interpretation of a statute and in Kruchlak v. Kruchlak, a married woman with no husband to support her was treated as a single woman for the purpose of affiliation proceedings while in Wiltshire v. Barette, the power to arrest a person committing an offence was interpreted broadly to include persons apparently committing a crime.

The Ejusdem Generis Rule.

This rule proffers that when general words come after particular words, the general words should be interpreted in line with the particular words. In Nasr v. Bouari, the court was to interpret section 1(1) of the Rent Control Act 1965 which defines premises as a building of any description occupied or used by persons for living or sleeping or other lawful purposes. The court was to decide whether the section included use for a nightclub in its definition of premises. The court held that nightclub was not included as “other lawful purposes” refers to purposes similar to living and sleeping. In R. v. Payne, a crowbar was included in the interpretation of a statute under which it was an offence to convey into prison with the intent to facilitate the escape of any prisoner, any mask, dress or other disguise, or any letter, or any other article or thing.

New purposive approach.

From the foregoing, it is possible to divide the two groups of interpretation into the literal and the constructive approach. The literal approach involves the giving the words their ordinary meanings, while the constructive approach involves judges modifying the law more in line with the intention of the legislature.

The new purposive approach is a blend of the golden and literal rule. According to Lord Denning, a judge should not just wring his hands in helplessness and apply laws which perpetrate injustice. He was of the view that judges should apply the laws according to the intention of the legislature and that the gaps should be filled in where necessary. This view was opposed by some, and prominent amongst these is Lord Simonds. The strict constructionist is of the believe that laws should only be given their literal interpretation and if there is anything wrong with the laws, they should be corrected by the legislature through an amendment. The function of the judge, it has been stated, is to interpret the law and not to create the law.

Both the House of Lords of England and the Supreme Court tilt more towards the strict constructionist approach. However, it would be good for judges to occasionally give laws the interpretation that is best in line with justice.

Limitation of use of extrinsic material.

Traditionally, courts are not inclined to go into the history of laws or state policies, and instead they are only concerned with what the law says. The courts have even stated in cases like Kehinde v. Registrar of Companies that it would not be guided by government policy as it was the job of the executive to implement government policies and it was out of the authority of the judiciary. The Court of Appeal in Asheik v. Governor of Borno State stated that a budget speech is a bare policy statement of the government with no force of law until it is promulgated into law. However, the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Attorney General of Lagos State v. Attorney General of the Federation has shown that the court would occasionally be willing to delve into the history of laws in the search for the intention of the legislature.

Constitutional Interpretation

In the interpretation of the constitution, it should be noted that the courts’ attitude is not the same as in the interpretation of statutes. While the courts usually adopt a literal approach in constitutional interpretation, the courts are also often liberal and follow the decision which is best in the furtherance of justice. This is different from the position of the British courts interpreting the constitutions of its colonies. This is to be expected of a legal system which a written constitution is foreign to and practices a parliamentary system. While similar constitutional provisions in other common law jurisdictions may be considered in the interpretation of constitutions, they are only persuasive and are not to be overly relied upon. The constitution is to be interpreted in such a way that it fits into the political, social and cultural state of Nigeria, with Nigeria’s history being considered while interpreting. While the court adopted a literal approach in Attorney General of Ondo State v. Attorney General of the Federation, it adopted a liberal view in Bronik Motors Ltd. v. Wema Bank Ltd. Other cases which included constitutional interpretation include Director of S.S.S. v. Agbakoba, Rabiu v. State, Adegbenro v. Akintola, Awolowo v. Shagari, etc.