Legal Method pp 253-268 | Cite as

Plain Meanings, Mischiefs and Purposes

  • Ian McLeod
Part of the Macmillan Law Masters book series


It is tempting to assume that the process of statutory interpretation simply requires the identification and application of the literal (or plain) meaning of the enacted words. In fact, however, such simple literalism is fundamentally defective, because it proceeds on the false assumption that a word, or a group of words, will always have a plain meaning. The truth of the matter is that many words have a variety of meanings, and the only way of identifying their meaning on a particular occasion is by reference to the context within which they are used. This proposition is not limited to statutory interpretation, as the examples at p. 7 illustrate. However, a useful judicial statement of the proposition may be found in the case of Bourne v. Norwich Crematorium Ltd [1967] 1 All ER 576, the facts of which are discussed at p. 4. Stamp J said:

‘English words derive colour from those which surround them. Sentences are not mere collections of words to be taken out of the sentence, defined separately by reference to the dictionary or decided cases, and then put back again into the sentence with the meaning which one has assigned to them as separate words so as to give the sentence or phrase a meaning which as a sentence or phrase it cannot bear without distortion of the English language. That one must construe a word or phrase in a section of an Act of Parliament with all the assistance one can from decided cases and, if you will, from the dictionary, is not in doubt; but having obtained all that assistance, one must not at the end of the day distort that which has to be construed and give it a meaning which in its context one would not think it can possibly bear.’


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Copyright information

© Thomas Ian McLeod 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ian McLeod
    • 1
  1. 1.London Guildhall UniversityUK

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