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The Supreme Court doctrine in the interpretation and construction of statutes (2)

By PROF Lawrence Atsegbua

Canons of Interpretation and Construction.

It is an accepted fact that words have no proper or specific meaning until they are put into a context of situation. A word may bear: (a) the meaning put upon it by the user,(b) that put upon it by the recipient, or (c) the ordinary meaning.

As a result of the uncertainty over the meaning of words, statutory interpretation has been described as a non subject. The courts in their attempt to construe ambiguous statutory provisions have developed rules and principles which will aid them in this regard.

As a result of the roles which the judges play in interpreting or construing statutes, Lord Devlin has concluded that, the law is what the judges say it is. While this may be the practical effect of the role which the judges play in interpreting vague and ambiguous statutory provisions, it is the consequence that arises from the fluid nature of words used by the legislative draftsman.

When confronted with an ambiguous statutory provision, the basic task before the judge is to ascertain the intention of the legislature. In ascertaining the intention of the legislature, the courts have developed three basic rules. These are: the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule. Let us examine these rules briefly.

(a) The Literal Rule

According to Jervis, C.J., if the precise words used in a statute are plain and unambiguous, in our judgment, we are bound to construe them in their ordinary sense, even though it do lead, in our view of the case, to an absurdity or manifest injustice.

Similarly, the Supreme Court of Nigeria stated in Africa Newspaper v. Federal of Nigeria, that: Where the words used in a statute are direct and straight forward and unambiguous, the construction of those words must be based on the ordinary plain meaning of the words.

If the intention of the legislature can be found in the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used, no difficulty arises. Where however, the words are ambiguous and are capable of more than one meaning, the literal rule of interpretation breaks down.

The literal rule may therefore be regarded as expressing an irrefutable presumption, that the legislature intends the ordinary and natural meaning of the words it employs.

The modern approach to statutory interpretation was succinctly brought out by Lord Diplock in the case of Carter v. Bradbeer, when he said: If one looks back to the actual decisions of this House on The question of statutory construction in the last thirty years, one Cannot fail to be struck by the evidence of a trend away from thepurely literal, towards the purposive construction of statutory provisions.

The case of Awolowo v. Shehu Shagari, illustrates the need for a purposive approach to statutory construction.  In this case, the issues before the court were inter alia: (a) What is the correct interpretation and application of section 34A (1) (c) (ii) of the Electoral Decree, 1977 as amended; (b) Where under section 34A (1) (c) (ii) of the Electoral Decree two thirds of a state is synonymous with two thirds of the physical or territorial area of the state; (c) What is the duty of a court where there are two possible meanings conveyed by the words of a statute in question? (d) Whether the ordinary meaning of words used in a  statute can form the subject of judicial notice.

The facts of this case were as follows: On 11th August 1979, the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO), a body charged with the duty of conducting election into the office (among other offices) of the President of the Federation, conducted an election into that office.


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