Words Matter: Statutory Interpretation and the Balance of Rights

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Words Matter

Precision in language is never so important as when used in legislation. Two recent cases highlight how the courts tackle the tricky job of statutory interpretation and show that context is everything. Roz Sullivan and Freya Piper from the Public Law and Regulatory team, look at how these cases demonstrate how the meaning of a word can tip the balance between individual rights and government power.

The ordinary meaning of serious

In the case of R (on the application of the National Council for Civil Liberties) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, the meaning of the word “serious” was in question. Regulations made under newly conferred Henry VIII powers were under the spotlight, with the government arguing that “serious” should cover anything more than “minor”. If adopted, this would have increased the number of occasions on which police intervened in public processions or assemblies by up to 50%, with prosecutions rising substantially too.

The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) argued that adopting an interpretation of “more than minor” created a test that did not fall within the ordinary meaning of “serious” and was therefore ultra vires the enabling power. The NCCL argued that such an interpretation lowered the threshold for intervention unacceptably, creating substantially increased exposure to criminal sanctions on the part of protesters exercising their civil rights. The government, on the other hand, claimed that a lower threshold was needed for effective law enforcement and national security.

The court had to decide if the government’s wide interpretation fit with the law’s purpose and with human rights principles. In the end, the court agreed with the NCCL, holding that the ordinary meaning of “serious” could not be stretched to cover activities only slightly more disruptive than minor ones. This decision was a win for civil liberties, making sure that the law’s wording is kept tight to protect people’s rights.

Context is everything

In contrast, an earlier 2024 case, R (on the application of LJ Fairburn & Son Ltd and others) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, addressed the issue as to when the right to compensation kicks in (and therefore the value) after the government condemns poultry. The legislation provided for compensation amounting to “the value of the bird immediately before it was slaughtered.” Under Valuation Tables published quarterly, no value was ascribed to diseased birds.

The claimants were poultry farmers whose stock had been affected by bird flu. They argued that the compensation should apply from the point of the decision to condemn a flock, and that their property rights under A1P1 of the ECHR were infringed by any alternative interpretation. By the time of slaughter, due to virulence of the avian flu, many condemned, previously healthy birds, died or became diseased, thus considerably reducing the overall value of compensation due. The government argued that the legislation provided for compensation to be linked to the value at the time of slaughter.

The court determined that this was about control of use, rather than deprivation of property. This meant the government was allowed a wide margin of appreciation, and the court determined that A1P1 rights had not been infringed. However, when considering the interpretation of the relevant legislation, the court found that the phrase in question had more than one reasonable interpretation, and the ordinary meaning could not be relied upon alone. In reliance on the principle that legislation should not be construed so as to interfere with a person’s rights without compensation, the court decided that compensation should be calculated at the point of condemnation.

A Balancing Act

These cases show how the court plays a crucial role in interpreting statutes, especially when government power and individual rights are at odds. The outcome of a case can hinge on the interpretation of a single word or phrase. And whilst the ordinary meaning of a word is important, courts won’t look at the words in isolation; they will consider the broader implications, legislative intent, and the impact on people’s rights.

To find out more about our public law and regulatory services please get in touch with the team.