Literal rule demands that the words used in a statute must be interpreted according to their literal and plain meaning, especially when they appear to be unambiguous and logically complete. According to the Literal rule, words used in a Statute should be given their ordinary, natural, plain and dictionary meaning. See The Sussex Peerage Case (1844) CL & Fin 85 at 143. There are several ways in which judges refer to this rule. Some call it the “plain and ordinary meaning” rule. See the case of Oke V. Atoloye (1985) 2 NWLR 578
According to Chuks Okpaluba:
“if the language of the statute is precise and unambiguous, there will be no need to espouse those words in their other senses since the intention of the legislature can only be read from the words of the statute themselves.
According to A.O. Obilade:
…words used in statutes are thus to be construed in their usual grammatical sense. If the words are used in relation to a trade or business they are to be given their usual meaning in the trade or business. It is immaterial that hardship would result from the literal interpretation.
See also:- Statutory Interpretation; Equity; Common Law; Received English Law; Doctrine of Covering the field; Criminal Law; Felony and civil Action; Sources of Nigeria Law II; Supremacy of the constitution.
In R. V. Bangaza (1960) 5 F.S.C. 1, the Federal Supreme Court in interpreting Section 319 (2) of the Criminal Code which gave the court power to sentence a person to death who had attained the age of 17 years at the time of conviction, whether or not he had attained such an age at the time of the commission of the crime, applied the literal rule of interpretation despite its harsh effect.
By the use of the literal rule of interpretation on this provision, the court could convict a person who had committed the offence of murder at the age of 14 and had stayed in custody pending trail for four years, when the conviction was handed down.
In A.G. Abia State & Ors V. A.G. Federation (2002) 6 NWLR (pt 763) 264; the Supreme Court in interpreting the provisions of Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution applied the literal rule when it said: Per Kutigi JSC:
“All the above provisions are to me clear and unambiguous. They should be read ordinarily and given their ordinary meaning. See also the case of Shelim V. Gobang (2009) All FWLR (pt. 496) 1866 S.C.
The literal rule of statutory interpretation has been applied in several other cases in Nigeria. See the case of Akanmode V. Dino (2009) All FWLR (pt.471) 929 C.A.
In Adegbenro V. Akintola (ibid) 365; the issue before the court was the interpretation of Section 33 (10) of the Constitution of the defunct Western Nigeria. This provision empowered the Governor to remove the premier if “it appears to him that the premier no longer commands the support of a majority of the House of assembly”. The court held that the expression “It appears to him” conferred on the Governor the power to pass the judgment determining whether the Premier no longer commanded the support of a majority of the House. The court held, by applying the literal rule that the Governor could base his judgment on any material he wanted to.
In Animashawun V. Osuma & Ors (1972) 2 ECSLR (pt 1) 274, Fatayi-Williams (JSC) (as he then was) held that
…It is one of the established canons of construction that no gloss should be put on any words used. The function of the court is to ascertain what the parties meant by the words which they have used…
In IBWA Ltd. V. Imano (Nig.) Ltd. & Anor (1988) 3 NWLR 633; the Supreme Court held, Per Karibi-Whyte JSC that:
…It is a fundamental rule for the interpretation of statutes that where the words are clear and unambiguous, they should be construed as they are and given their ordinary meaning…
Golden Rule – Literal rule
Where the court is faced with a problem of interpretation, and the application of the literal rule will produce absurd, inconsistent or ambiguous results the court may instead apply the golden rule of interpretation of statutes. See the case Federal Republic of Nigeria V. Osahun (2006) All FWLR (pt. 312) 1975 S.C. This will involve applying the secondary meaning of the words used in the statute to avoid absurd, inconsistent or ambiguous result. There is an assumption that the courts could not have intended the resultant absurdity, inconsistency or ambiguity.
Consequently, the golden rule is a modification of the literal rule of statutory interpretation.
In Becke V. Smith (1836) 150 ER. 724 at 724, Park B. had this to say on the golden rule of statutory interpretation:
…It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the word used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that it is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience, but no further.
This rule can only be used “when there is internal disharmony in the statute. The rationale of this rule is that the court is “not to attribute to general language used by the legislature…a meaning which would not carry out its object, but produce consequence which to the ordinary intelligence are absurd. You must give it such a meaning as will carry out its object.; Per Lindley L.J. in The Duke of Buccleuch (1898) 15 PD. 86 at 96
In Omoijahe V. Umoru (1999) 8 NWLR (pt 614) at 178; See also Ugwu V. Araraume (2007) All FWLR (pt. 377) 807 S.C.; the Supreme Court had this to say:
…the principles of construction/interpretation of statutory provisions are well established. The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning. Judges are not called upon to apply their opinions of sound policy so as to modify or alter the plain meaning of statutory words, but where, in construing the general words the meaning of which is not entirely plain or clear, then there are adequate “reasons for doubting whether the lawmaker would have intended so wide an interpretation as would disregard fundamental principles. In such a situation, the courts may be justified in adopting a narrower construction.
See Nokes V. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd (1940) A.C. 1014. It should be borne in mind that statutes are construed to promote the general purpose of the legislature/lawmaker.
Judges ought not to go by the letter of the statute only, but also by the spirit of the enactment…In criminal trials the usual procedure for the apprehension, charge and prosecution of the offender must be followed… A construction of Order 42 Rule 1 which seeks to disregard this Principle is not acceptable. Per Katsina-Alu JSC at 188.
The most vocal exponent of the golden rule of statutory interpretation is Lord Denning MR.
In Seaford Court Estates Ltd V. Asher (1949) 2KB 481; he said:
“It would certainly save the judges trouble if Acts of parliaments were drafted with divine prescience and perfect clarity. In the absence of it, when a defect appears a judge cannot simply fold his hands and blame the draftsmen. He must set to work on the constructive task of finding the intention of parliament…Put into homely metaphor it is this; a judge should ask himself the question; if the makers of the act had themselves come across this rucks in the texture of it, how would they have straightened it out? He must then do as they would have done.
A judge must not alter the material of which it is woven it is woven but he can and should iron out the creases.
This rule has been applied in many Nigerian cases. In R. V. Princewill (1963) 2 All NLR 31, the court was faced with the interpretation of Section 370 of the Criminal Code, which provides as follows:
“Any person who, having a husband or wife living marries in any case in which such marriage is void by reason of its taking place during the life of such husband or wife is guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment for seven years.
In this case, the court held that the word “marries” was not to be construed as contracting a valid marriage but as going through a form of marriage known to or recognized by law.
In Council of the University, Ibadan V. Ademolekun (1967) 1 All NLR 213; the Supreme Court had to determine whether an Edict made by the Military Governor of Western Nigeria could be declared void by the court on the ground of inconsistency with a Decree. Section 6 of the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree, 1966, Decree No 1 of 1996, provided that: “No question as to the validity of this or any other Decree or any Edict shall be entertained by any court of law in Nigeria.”
Section 3(4) of the same Decree made any Edict which was inconsistent with a Decree void to the extent of such inconsistency. If the court had applied the plain and ordinary meaning of the words, then the court would have been barred from questioning the validity or otherwise of an Edict which was inconsistent with a military decree.
The court applied the Golden rule of statutory interpretation of statute and held that the offending Edict was void to the extent of its inconsistency.
In Awolowo V. Federal Minister of Internal Affairs (1962) LLR 177; the court had to determine the import of section 21(5) (c) of the then Constitution of the Federation which provided that an accused person was “entitled to defend himself in person or by legal representative of his own choice”.
The real question for determination was whether a person can base on this provision; choose a lawyer from anywhere in the world to represent him in a criminal trial. The court held that under the provision, the legal representation chosen if outside Nigeria must be a person who could enter Nigeria as of right. It also stated that such a representative must be someone who was not under any disability. This decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court.