The courts have in the past and even till today found it difficult to carry out its primary duty of interpreting the constitution, statutes and other documents brought before it. This is because there was no comprehensive code for interpretation of status and documents.
The courts have resorted to not only the use of the available codes of interpretation, such as the Interpretation act, and the defining sections in the relevant law, but have also resorted to the common law rules of interpretation, and legal presumptions to square up with the onerous challenges of interpretation.
This problem of interpretation always rears up its ugly head. A piece of legislation that is passed into law by the parliament may look so easy to understand and all embracing on the face of it, is bound to sooner or later present problems of interpretation when it comes to the actual implementation of the statute.
In the interpretation of statutes, the court seeks to find out the intention of the legislature. In Nishizawa Ltd. V. Jethwani (1984) 12 SC 234 at 290, Oputa (JSC) (as he then was) said that “it is the duty of the court to try and get at the real intention of the legislature by carefully attending to the whole scope of the statute to be construed”
In the dissenting judgment of Bello (JSC) (as he then was) in Ifezue V. Mgbadugha (1984) 1 SCNLR 427; while discussing the fundamental principles of interpretation said:
…such interpretation as would serve the interests of the constitution and would best carry out its objects and purpose should be preferred. To achieve this goal, its relevant provisions must be read together and not disjointly; where the words of any section are clear and unambiguous, they must be given their ordinary meaning unless this would lead to absurdity or be in conflict with other provisions of the constitution…
It is intended we discuss the common law rules or principles of statutory interpretation. It is also intended to analyze in this chapter other rules or principles of statutory interpretation which do not have their origin from common law. The three main general principles of statutory interpretation are the Literal Rule, The Golden Rule, and The Mischief Rule.
Literal rule – Statutory Interpretation
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.
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…