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Context Rule and Its Development in English Law

English Law
English Law

English LawIntroduction:

A statute is basically the formal act enacted by the legislature in written form. In lay man’s term, statute can be called as a command of the legislature which is to be obeyed. Statute law helps in distinguishing the laws passed by the parliament from common law and equity. A single enactment of the parliament is known as “act of parliament”. When a statute is enacted, it cannot be explained by the individual opinions of the legislature.”After the enacting process is over, the legislature becomes functus officio, so far as that particular act is concerned, so that it cannot itself interpret it.” Thus the legislature can only make amendments in the act by passing a new statute. So here comes in the concept of “interpretation of statutes” where it is determined what the intention of the legislature was because it is the duty of the judiciary to “act upon the true intentions” of the legislature. Hence, the words of the statutes have to be interpreted in their true sense or legal sense.

Now the problem with any language is that the words do not have any precise or definite meaning. Thus to understand the act we need to know in what sense the words in the act were used. There are various approaches to the interpretation of statutes. The four main rules in the interpretation of statutes are:

  • Mischief  Rule;

In mischief rule, the emphasis is laid on the objective of the act. Here the main objective is to find out what were the circumstances which led to the enactment of the act, what was the condition before the act was enacted and what consequences did the enactment bring in.

  • Literal Rule;

Literal rule states that if the words in an act are precise and unambiguous then they should be used in their natural and ordinary sense. If any doubt arises then the circumstances behind the enactment of the act are taken into consideration. Thus if the words are clear in themselves then they are to be put into effect.

Golden Rule;

In golden rule, the meaning of the words is modified in order to avoid “repugnance, inconsistency or absurdity”.

  • Context Rule;

In context rule, the meaning of a word of an act is understood with reference to the words which are in immediate connection to it.

In this research I emphasize on the fourth rule, i.e., the context rule. In my view context rule is a more accurate way of interpreting a statute. I believe that every rule has some essence of context rule in it. This is so because in each rule we tend to find out the meaning of a statute by learning about the context in which it was written. I have made an attempt to prove my point by looking into three different segments of the legal system, which I have discussed further.

 Research Methodology:

The basis of my research rests on the subject “context rule”. Context Rule is a way through which statutes are interpreted in a legal system. On the bedrock of my past knowledge, I hypothesize that context rule refers to the interpretation of words with reference to the words found in immediate connection to it. I believe it refers to how the statutes are interpreted in context of the facts of the case. On the background of this hypothesis, I begin my research. 

The main intention of this research is to find out how context rule has developed in the English law. It also lays emphasis on its role in different segments of law. In order to find this out, I shall first find out the facts which would prove as a foundation to my research. I shall then arrange the facts through doctrinal survey wherein I prefer to various books from the library belonging to renowned and well recognized authors which served as a primary source in the collection of facts. I shall also take aid from various internet websites in order to get some fundamental knowledge on what “interpretation of statutes” does actually mean which served as a secondary source of collecting facts. After arranging the facts I would view them from an analytical perspective. I would analyse context rule and differentiate it from other laws of interpretation of statutes. I shall then talk about the usage of context rule in different circumstances. I shall also give an example of Princess Sophia Naturalization Act,1705 to look at how interpretation of statutes helps in the court of law. I shall refer to the Harvard Blue Book citation guide for the citations and footnotes.

To begin with, I have first tried to find out what context rule actually is. Then I searched for the various aspects of context rule where I researched about the usage of context rule in various instances. In each topic I have tried to make my stand clear with the help of case studies. In order to make the reader comfortable with the rule, I have divided my research into different chapters, which are as follows:

Context Rule-Closer Perspective;

Here I shall give a better explanation of what context rule actually is. I shall include various rules required. My research will be based on library as well as internet research.

  • Usage of Context Rule;

Under this chapter I shall make an attempt to analyse the employment of context rule under different situations. My research will be based on library research. I made an approach to include this chapter in my research just to make the understanding more clear with the help of examples.

  • Princess Sophia Naturalization Act,1705;

In this chapter I look at how the context rule is applied in the court of law in interpreting a statute. This chapter is based on internet research. The need to include this chapter was to understand how context rule is beneficial in the interpretation of laws.

  • Conclusion;

At the end of my research, I shall conclude here with my hypothesise which shall be based on my findings.

Context Rule-Closer Perspective:

Context rule is expressed in the Latin maxim “noscitur-a-sociis” which Henry Fielding defined as “a word may be known by the company it keeps”. Thus in context rule we understand the meaning of the statutes by taking into mind the words which stand with it. In State of Bombay vs. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha[1], the Supreme Court said: the basic scope and applicability of noscitur-a-sociis rule is that associated words take their meaning from one another under doctrine of noscitur-a-sociis, the philosophy of which is that the meaning of doubtful word may be ascertained by reference to the meaning of words associated with it.[2] 

Now when interpreting a statute, the “intention of the legislature” is taken into consideration. But certain situations might arise which may come within the words of a statute or may not. In such situations, there is a probability that the legislature must have also foreseen it. Thus, the parliament will be equally puzzled with the situation as the judges are. Hence, “intention of the legislature” is a tale of fantasy. So, the courts aren’t actually concerned with the intention of the law makers. According to Lord Simmon,

“In the construction of written documents including statutes, what the court is concerned to ascertain is, not what the promulgators of the instruments meant to say, but the meaning of what they have said.”[3]

The words we use, though they have a central core of meaning that is relatively fixed, have a fringe of uncertainty when applied to the infinitely variable facts of experience.[4] For instance, if the legislature passes a rule that tax shall be levied on vehicles. Now it is not clear as to whether the word “vehicle” includes two-wheelers, three-wheelers, or four-wheelers. Thus if the judge takes an auto rickshaw not as a vehicle then it would be adding a clause to the statute giving it a narrower view. Hence one may say that the judge acts as a legislator in such cases. These decisions may be acceptable both socially as well as legally, but they may not give the exact interpretation to the legislature.

To understand this better, we can take the example of Nisbet vs. Rayne & Burne[5],in this case the word “accident” has been deciphered in the light of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The court came into a conclusion that the widow of the deceased would get a compensation as the murder occurred in the course of employment.

Usage Of Context Rule:

Now, when we read a statute two kinds of situations arise-one when the words are precise and ambiguous and second when two or more words are connected. In the first case the meaning of the words should be taken as they are, i.e. in their ordinary sense but in the second case the meaning of the words should be determined by the immediate words associated with them. The general word, which follows a particular, must be read in the context the particular word is used in the statute. This further leads to different situations which have been discussed below:

  • Different meaning of words in different contexts:

Words in any language derive their meaning of those which surround them. When we read a sentence we do not find out its meaning by taking the meaning of each individual word into hand. We understand its meaning by associating the meaning of each word with each other. For instance in Bourne vs. Norwich Crematorium ltd[6], the question was whether operating a commercial crematorium was a trade consisting in “the subjection of goods or materials to any process” to which Stamp J held that human corpses are not “materials” though most people would surely hold that they are.

  • Determining the meaning of a neutral word:

Where an enactment includes a word which in itself is neutral, then the context provides its meaning. For instance in Gartforth (Inspector of Taxes) vs. New smith Stainless ltd[7], Walton J said that the word payment “has no one settled meaning but…takes its colour very much from the context in which it is found.” Similarly in Lee-Verhulst(investments) ltd vs Harwood Trust[8], Stamp LJ said “the words ‘occupation’ and ‘occupies’ are not words of art having an ascertained legal meaning applicable, or prima facie applicable wherever you find them in a statement, but take their colour from the context of the statute in which they are found.”

  • Adopting a restricted meaning:

The context may indicate that a restriction is intended of the literal or usual meaning. Taking an example, in LCC vs. Tann[9], it was held that the word “ordinance” must be given a limited meaning because of its association with the word “act”.

  • Determining extent of qualifying terms:

Where a string of words is followed by a general expression which is as much applicable to the first and other words as to the last, that expression is not limited to the last but is applies to all. For instance, in Great Western Rly co vs. Swindon and Cheltenham Rly co[10], in the phrase “horses, oxen, pigs and sheep, from whatever country they may come[11]the italicized words would apply to horses and oxen as much as to sheep.

This in this chapter we can observe the application of context rule. Further on I will be discussing about more specific areas of law wherein I shall include a case study in Princess Sophia Naturalization Act, 1705.

 Princess Sophia Naturalization Act,1705:

When a statute is ambiguous, its meaning should be understood in the light of other statutes, i.e. statutes in pari materia should be construed together. This can be understood with the help of a case study referring to AG vs HRH Prince Ernest Augustus[12]. There was an appeal in the House of Lords regarding the Princess Sophia Naturalization Act,1705. Now, Sophia was not considered to be an Englishwoman as she had not been born in England. This Act helped in naturalizing her and “the issue of her body” as English subjects. Naturalization was restricted to those of the Protestant faith. However, any person born to a descendant of Sophia could also claim to be the “issue of her body”. But the case arose when the British Nationality Act,1948.

The Attorney-General wanted to include the preamble in the enactment but there was strong opposition from the respondent. They claimed that the statute was clear and there was no need of including the preamble which cannot be read.

Lord Viscount Simond in this connection told that:

“I conceive it to be my right and duty to examine every word of a statute in its context, and I use context in its wildest sense as including not only other enacting provisions of the same statute, but its preamble, the existing state of law, other statutes in pari materia, and the mischief which I can, by those and other legitimate means, discern that the statute was intended to remedy.”

Lord Somervell said:

“A question of construction arises when one side submits that a particular provision of an Act covers the facts of the case and the other submits that it does not or it may be agreed it applies, but the difference arises to its application. It is unreal to proceed as if the court looked first at the provision in dispute without knowing whether it was contained in a finance act or a Public Health Act. The title and general scope of the Act constitute the background of the context. When the Court comes to the Act itself, bearing in mind any relevant extraneous matters, there is, in my opinion one compelling rule. The whole, or any part, of the Act may be referred to and relied on.”

Sir John Nicoll opined:

“The key to the opening of every law is the reason and the spirit of the law—it is the animus imponentis, the intention of the law-maker, expressed in the law itself, taken as a whole. Hence to arrive at the true meaning of any particular phrase in statute, that particular phrase is not to be viewed detached from the context—meaning by this as well the title and the preamble as the purview or enacting part of the statute.”

Lord Norman too agreed with this.


I had started this research with a hypothesis that context rule is the interpretation of the words of a statute in relation to the words which are in connection with it. At the end, I conclude that my hypothesis has somewhat been proved correct. Context rule is the interpretation of words with reference to the words with it. English words are ambiguous and thus they derive their meaning from the words which come along with it. The judge looks at the circumstances and interprets the statutes accordingly.


  • Books Referred-
    • Justice G.P.Singh, Interpretation of Statutes(12th edition 2010)
    • A.B. Kafaltiya, Interpretation of Statutes
    • VCRAC Crabbe,Understanding Statutes(1994)
    • Francis Bennion, Bennion on Statutory Interpretation(5th edition 2008)
    • Peter Benson Maxwell, Interpretation of Statutes(1883)
    • Glanville Williams,Learning The Law(11th edition 2009)
  • Websites Referred-
  • Acts Referred-
    • British Nationality Act,1948
    • Princess Sophia Naturalization Act,1705

[1] AIR 1960 SC 610: (1960) 2 SCR 866.

[2] A.B.Kafaltiya,interpretation of statutes.

[3] Farrell vs. Alexander [1977] A.C. at 81G.

[4] Learning the law-Glanville Williams.

[5] [1910] 2 K.B, 689.

[6] [1967] 1 WLR 691.

[7] [(1979) 1 WLR 409 at 412.

[8] [1973] QB 204 at 217.

[9] [1954] 1 WLR 371.

[10] 1884-9 AC 787.

[11] Francis Bennion, Bennion on statutory interpretation 1229(5th edition 2008).

[12] (1957) 1 ALL ER 49.



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