Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.2  The golden rule

This rule is a modification of the literal rule. It states that if the literal rule produces an absurdity, then the court should look for another meaning of the words to avoid that absurd result. The rule was closely defined by Lord Wensleydale in Grey v Pearson (1857) HL Cas 61, who stated:

The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance 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 the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.

Box 8 Example of the golden rule: Adler v George [1964] 1 All ER 628

Adler v George [1964] 1 All ER 628. Under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act 1920, it was an offence to obstruct HM Forces in the vicinity of a prohibited place. Mr Frank Adler had in fact been arrested whilst obstructing such forces within such a prohibited place (Marham Royal Air Force Station). He argued that he was not in the vicinity of a prohibited place as he was actually in a prohibited place. The court applied the golden rule to extend the literal wording of the statute to cover the action committed by the defendant. If the literal rule had been applied, it would have produced absurdity because someone protesting near the base would be committing an offence whilst someone protesting in it would not.

The rule was used in the case to avoid an absurd result.

The golden rule provides no clear means to test the existence or extent of an absurdity. It seems to depend on the result of each individual case. Whilst the golden rule has the advantage of avoiding absurdities, it therefore has the disadvantage that no test exists to determine what an absurdity is.