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Judges and the law
Judges and the law

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6.3 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.

The rule was used in the case of Adler v George (1964) to avoid an absurd result. 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 (Markham Royal Air Force Station, Norfolk). 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, as someone protesting near the base would be committing an offence whilst someone protesting in it would not.

Re Sigsworth (1935) concerned a case where a son had murdered his mother. The mother had not made a will and under the Administration of Justice Act 1925 her estate would be inherited by her next of kin, i.e. her son. There was no ambiguity in the words of the Act, but the court was not prepared to let the son who had murdered his mother benefit from his crime. It was held that the literal rule should not apply and that the golden rule should be used to prevent the repugnant situation of the son inheriting.

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 is an absurdity.