Mischief rule

The mischief rule[1] is one of three rules of statutory interpretation traditionally applied by English courts.[2] The other two are the "plain meaning rule" (also known as the "literal rule") and the "golden rule".

The main aim of the rule is to determine the "mischief and defect" that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy. In applying the mischief rule, the court is essentially asking what part of the law did the law not cover, but was meant to be rectified by Parliament in passing the bill.

The rule was first laid out in a 16th-century ruling of the Exchequer Court.

Meaning and use

Conway v Rimmer is a rule of construction that judges can apply in statutory interpretation in order to discover Parliament's intention. In applying the rule, the court is essentially asking what the mischief was that the previous law did not cover, which Parliament was seeking to remedy when it passed the law now being reviewed by the court.

The mischief rule is of narrower application than the golden rule or the plain meaning rule, in that it can only be used to interpret a statute and, strictly speaking, only when the statute was passed to remedy a defect in the common law.

Legislative intent is determined by examining secondary sources, such as committee reports, treatises, law review articles and corresponding statutes.

The application of this rule gives the judge more discretion than the literal and the golden rule as it allows him to effectively decide on Parliament's intent. It can be argued that this undermines Parliament's supremacy and is undemocratic as it takes law-making decisions away from the legislature.

The way in which the mischief rule can produce more sensible outcomes than those that would result if the literal rule were applied is illustrated by the ruling in Smith v Hughes [1960] 2 All E.R. 859. Under the Street Offences Act 1959, it was a crime for prostitutes to "loiter or solicit in the street for the purposes of prostitution". The defendants were calling to men in the street from balconies and tapping on windows. They claimed they were not guilty as they were not in the "street". The judge applied the mischief rule to come to the conclusion that they were guilty as the intention of the act was to cover the mischief of harassment from prostitutes.


The rule was first set out in Heydon's Case [1584] 76 ER 637 3 CO REP 7a[3][4] where the court ruled that there were four points to be taken into consideration when interpreting a statute:

For the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law), four things are to be discerned and considered:

1st. What was the common law before the making of the Act.

2nd. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide.

3rd. What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth.

And, 4th. The true reason of the remedy;

And then the office of all the Judges is to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.

Traditional use

In the century in which it was created, and for some time thereafter, the mischief rule was used in a legislative environment very different from the one which has prevailed in the past two centuries. As Elmer Driedger notes,

[S]ixteenth-century common law judges ... looked upon statutes as a gloss upon the common law, even as an intrusion into their domain. Hence, statutes were viewed from the point of view of their effect upon the common law, as adding to it, subtracting from it or patching it up....

Then also, in the time of Heydon's Case, the judges paid more attention to the "spirit" of the law than to the letter. Having found the mischief they proceeded to make mischief with the words of the statute. They remodelled the statute, by taking things out and putting things in, in order to fit the "mischief" and "defect" as they had found them.[5]

Modern use

Modern courts continue to apply the rule in a more restricted manner, and generally with a greater regard for the integrity of the statutes which they are interpreting. Driedger puts it this way: "[T]o this day, Heydon's Case is frequently cited. The courts still look for the 'mischief' and 'remedy', but now use what they find as aids to discover the meaning of what the legislature has said rather than to change it."[6] Driedger goes on to argue that this modern use of the mischief rule ought to be understood as one of the components of what he characterized as the "modern" method of statutory construction, rather than a stand-alone rule serving (as it formerly had), as an alternative to the methods of construction proposed by the plain meaning rule and the golden rule.


  • In a common law jurisdiction, the existence of precedent and the knock-on effects of construing a statute prevent misuse of the rule
  • The Law Commission sees it as a far more satisfactory way of interpreting acts as opposed to the golden or literal rules
  • It usually avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing
  • It is consistent with parliament sovereignty


  • It is seen to be out of date as it has been in use since the 16th century, when common law was the primary source of law and parliamentary supremacy was not established
  • It gives too much power to the unelected judiciary which is argued to be undemocratic
  • In the 16th century, the judiciary would often draft acts on behalf of the king and were therefore well qualified in what mischief the act was meant to remedy. This is not often the case in modern legal systems.
  • The rule can make the law uncertain

See also


  1. ^ http://legal-directory.net/english-law/interpretation-mischief-rule.htm
  2. ^ "The notion has long prevailed that three different rules or approaches may be employed in ascertaining the meaning of a statute. First, there is said to be the "purpose" approach or "mischief rule"... Then there is said to be the "literal" approach or "plain meaning" rule... Finally there is what is called the "golden rule"... Source: Elmer Driedger, Construction of Statutes. Toronto: Butterworths, 1983, p. 1.
  3. ^ http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Exch/1584/J36.html
  4. ^ http://www.swarb.co.uk/lisc/LitiP12001799.php
  5. ^ Elmer Driedger, The Construction of Statutes. Second Edition. Toronto: Butterworths, 1983, pp. 74–75.
  6. ^ Elmer Driedger, The Construction of Statutes. Second Edition. Toronto: Butterworths, 1983, p. 75.
1580s in England

Events from the 1580s in England.

Copyright law of India

The Copyright Act 1957 (as amended by the Copyright Amendment Act 2012) governs the subject of copyright law in India. The Act is applicable from 21 January 1958. The history of copyright law in India can be traced back to its colonial era under the British Empire. The Copyright Act 1957 was the first post-independence copyright legislation in India and the law has been amended six times since 1957. The most recent amendment was in the year 2012, through the Copyright (Amendment) Act 2012. India is a member of most of the important international conventions governing the area of copyright law, including the Berne Convention of 1886 (as modified at Paris in 1971), the Universal Copyright Convention of 1951, the Rome Convention of 1961 and the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). But India is not a member of the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT).

Golden rule (law)

The golden rule in English law is one of the rules of statutory construction traditionally applied by the English courts. The rule can be used to avoid the consequences of a literal interpretation of the wording of a statute when such an interpretation would lead to a manifest absurdity or to a result that is obnoxious to principles of public policy. The rule can be applied in two different ways, named respectively the narrower approach and the wider approach.

Heydon's Case

Heydon's Case (1584) is considered a landmark case as it was the first case to use what would come to be called the mischief rule for statutory interpretation. The mischief rule is more flexible than the golden or literal rule, in that the mischief rule requires judges to look over four tasks to ensure that gaps within the law are covered.

Judicial interpretation

Judicial interpretation refers to different ways that the judiciary uses to interpret the law, particularly constitutional documents and legislation. This is an important issue in some common law jurisdictions such as the United States, Australia and Canada, because the supreme courts of those nations can overturn laws made by their legislatures via a process called judicial review.

For example, the United States Supreme Court has decided such topics as the legality of slavery as in the Dred Scott decision, and desegregation as in the Brown v Board of Education decision, and abortion rights as in the Roe v Wade decision. As a result, how justices interpret the constitution, and the ways in which they approach this task has a political aspect. Terms describing types of judicial interpretation can be ambiguous; for example, the term judicial conservatism can vary in meaning depending on what is trying to be "conserved". One can look at judicial interpretation along a continuum from judicial restraint to judicial activism, with different viewpoints along the continuum.


Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been defined both as "the Science of Justice" and "the Art of Justice". Law is a system that regulates and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to the will of the state. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

A general distinction can be made between (a) civil law jurisdictions, in which a legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates their laws, and (b) common law systems, where judge-made precedent is accepted as binding law. Historically, religious laws played a significant role even in settling of secular matters, and is still used in some religious communities. Islamic Sharia law is the world's most widely used religious law, and is used as the primary legal system in some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.The adjudication of the law is generally divided into two main areas. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to social order and in which the guilty party may be imprisoned or fined. Civil law (not to be confused with civil law jurisdictions above) deals with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations.Law provides a source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice.

Law of Australia

The law of Australia comprises many levels of codified and uncodified forms of law. These include the Australian Constitution, legislation enacted by the Federal Parliament and the parliaments of the States and territories of Australia, regulations promulgated by the Executive, and the common law of Australia arising from the decisions of judges.

The Australian Constitution is the legal foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia and sets out a federal system of government, dividing power between the federal Government and the States and territories, each of which are separate jurisdictions and have their own system of courts and parliaments. The constitutional framework of Australia is a combination of elements of the Westminster and United States systems of government. The federal legislature has the power to pass laws with respect to a number of express areas, which apply to the whole of Australia and override any State laws to the extent of any inconsistency. However, beyond those express areas the States legislatures generally have plenary power to enact laws on any subject.At both the federal and State levels, the substantive law of Australia is largely derived from the common law system of English law.

The High Court of Australia is the highest court in Australia, and hears appeals from federal and State courts on matters of both federal and State law. Unlike the United States, there is only one common law of Australia rather than common laws for each of the several jurisdictions of the states and territories.

Legislative history

Legislative history includes any of various materials generated in the course of creating legislation, such as committee reports, analysis by legislative counsel, committee hearings, floor debates, and histories of actions taken. Legislative history is used for discovering sources of information about a legislature's intent in enacting a law, although jurists disagree widely about the extent (if any) to which a statute's legislative history has bearing on the meaning of its text.

Legislative intent

In law, the legislative intent of the legislature in enacting legislation may sometimes be considered by the judiciary when interpreting the law (see judicial interpretation). The judiciary may attempt to assess legislative intent where legislation is ambiguous, or does not appear to directly or adequately address a particular issue, or when there appears to have been a legislative drafting error.

The courts have repeatedly held that when a statute is clear and unambiguous, the inquiry into legislative intent ends at that point. It is only when a statute could be interpreted in more than one fashion that legislative intent must be inferred from sources other than the actual text of the statute.

Letter and spirit of the law

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis. When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.

"Law" originally referred to legislative statute, but in the idiom may refer to any kind of rule. Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit may be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language.

Living tree doctrine

In Canadian law, the living tree doctrine (French: théorie de l'arbre vivant) is a doctrine of constitutional interpretation that says that a constitution is organic and must be read in a broad and progressive manner so as to adapt it to the changing times.

Original intent

Original intent is a theory in law concerning constitutional and statutory interpretation. It is frequently used as a synonym for originalism;[1] while original intent is indeed one theory in the originalist family, it has some salient differences which has led originalists from more predominant schools of thought such as original meaning to distinguish original intent as much as legal realists do.

Original meaning

In the context of United States constitutional interpretation, original meaning is the dominant form of the legal theory of originalism today. It was made popular by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and contends that the terms of the United States Constitution should be interpreted as meaning what they meant when they were ratified, which is to say, it asks the question: "What would a reasonable person living at the time of ratification have understood these words to mean?"

The theory stands in equal opposition to interpretivist theories such as original intent, and legal realist theories such as that of the living Constitution.

Plain meaning rule

The plain meaning rule, also known as the literal rule, is one of three rules of statutory construction traditionally applied by English courts. The other two are the "mischief rule" and the "golden rule".

The plain meaning rule dictates that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute. In other words, a statute is to be read word for word and is to be interpreted according to the ordinary meaning of the language, unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise or unless the result would be cruel or absurd. Ordinary words are given their ordinary meaning, technical terms are given their technical meaning, and local, cultural terms are recognized as applicable. The plain meaning rule is the mechanism that prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues. Additionally, it is the mechanism that underlies textualism and, to a certain extent, originalism.


In common law legal systems, precedent is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. Common-law legal systems place great value on deciding cases according to consistent principled rules, so that similar facts will yield similar and predictable outcomes, and observance of precedent is the mechanism by which that goal is attained. The principle by which judges are bound to precedents is known as stare decisis. Common-law precedent is a third kind of law, on equal footing with statutory law (that is, statutes and codes enacted by legislative bodies) and delegated legislation (in U.K. parlance) or regulatory law (in U.S. parlance) (that is, regulations promulgated by executive branch agencies).

Case law, in common-law jurisdictions, is the set of decisions of adjudicatory tribunals or other rulings that can be cited as precedent. In most countries, including most European countries, the term is applied to any set of rulings on law, which is guided by previous rulings, for example, previous decisions of a government agency.

Essential to the development of case law is the publication and indexing of decisions for use by lawyers, courts, and the general public, in the form of law reports. While all decisions are precedent (though at varying levels of authority as discussed throughout this article), some become "leading cases" or "landmark decisions" that are cited especially often.

In civil law systems, past decisions may influence future decisions, even if they do not have the precedential, binding effect that they have in common law decision-making.

Purposive approach

The purposive approach (sometimes referred to as purposivism, purposive construction, purposive interpretation, or the modern principle in construction) is an approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation under which common law courts interpret an enactment (a statute, part of a statute, or a clause of a constitution) within the context of the law's purpose.

Purposive interpretation is a derivation of mischief rule set in Heydon's Case, and intended to replace the mischief rule, the plain meaning rule and the golden rule. Purposive interpretation is used when the courts use extraneous materials from the pre-enactment phase of legislation, including early drafts, hansards, committee reports, and white papers. The purposive interpretation involves a rejection of the exclusionary rule.

Israeli jurist Aharon Barak views purposive interpretation as a legal construction that combines elements of the subjective and objective. Barak states that the subjective elements include the intention of the author of the text, whereas the objective elements include the intent of the reasonable author and the legal system’s fundamental values.Critics of purposivism argue it fails to separate the powers between the legislator and the judiciary, as it allows more freedom in interpretation by way of extraneous materials in interpreting the law.

Statutory interpretation

Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret and apply legislation. Some amount of interpretation is often necessary when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in many cases, there is some ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose.

In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation both to legislation enacted by the legislature and to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.

Strict constructionism

In the United States, strict constructionism refers to a particular legal philosophy of judicial interpretation that limits or restricts judicial interpretation.


Textualism is a formalist theory in which the interpretation of the law is primarily based on the ordinary meaning of the legal text, where no consideration is given to non-textual sources, such as: intention of the law when passed, the problem it was intended to remedy, or significant questions regarding the justice or rectitude of the law.

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