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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Literal/plain Meaning Rule

The Plain meaning rule, also known as the literal rule, is a type of statutory construction, which dictates that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise. In other words, the law is to be read word for word and should not divert from its true meaning. It is the mechanism that underlines textualism and, to a certain extent, originalism.

What is Plain Meaning Rule

To avoid ambiguity, legislatures often include "definitions" sections within a statute, which explicitly define the most important terms used in that statute. But some statutes omit a definitions section entirely, or (more commonly) fail to define a particular term. The plain meaning rule attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.

According to the plain meaning rule, absent a contrary definition within the statute, words must be given their plain, ordinary and literal meaning. If the words are clear, they must be applied, even though the intention of the legislator may have been different or the result is harsh or undesirable. The literal rule is what the law says instead of what the law means.

Prof. Larry Solum's Legal Theory Lexicon expands on this premise:

Some laws are meant for all citizens (e.g., criminal statutes) and some are meant only for specialists (e.g., some sections of the tax code). A text that means one thing in a legal context, might mean something else if it were in a technical manual or a novel. So the plain meaning of a legal text is something like the meaning that would be understood by competent speakers of the natural language in which the text was written who are within the intended readership of the text and who understand that the text is a legal text of a certain type.

Lord Evershed was echoing the same point: 'The length and detail of modern legislation has undoubtedly reinforced the claim of literal construction as the only safe rule.'

If the statute was long, this suggested that parliament had expressed its full meaning and that there was no need or scope to imply any additional meanings. Anything omitted was a casus omissus which the judge could not supply because that would amount to legislation. But the literal approach was used equally for wills, contracts, and other legal documents, so that the philosophy was by no means based exclusively on the constitutional relationship between courts and parliament nor on the growing length of statutes.

The plain meaning approach cannot survive modern hermeneutic understandings of how we read texts. No words are simply "plain in themselves." The words are just scratches on a page. They are said to be plain only because the interpreter is deciding to treat them as such and giving a particular connotation to them, a connotation that the judge claims to be the connotation intended by the legislator. The judge in dividing up the words into plain categories or ambiguous categories is really doing so by supplying a context and assigning a connotation, even unconsciously, for the words. Professor Zander summarizes the criticisms as follows at 49:

But the literal rule has also been subjected to severe criticism:

(l) The most fundamental objection to the rule is that it is based on a false premise, namely that words have plain, ordinary meanings apart from their context. Professor H.L.A. Hart of Oxford has argued that a word has a core meaning 'or standard instance in which no doubts are felt about its application' even though at the edges there is a margin of uncertainty. But Professor Lon Fuller has contested this by urging that meaning attaches not to individual words but to sentences and paragraphs, and that 'surely a paragraph does not have a "standard instance" that remains constant whatever the context in which it appears.' If a statute seems to have a core meaning 'this is because we can see that, however one might formulate the precise objective of the statute, this case would still come within it.'

(2) Those who apply the literal approach often talk of using the 'dictionary meaning' of the words in question, but dictionaries normally provide a number of alternative meanings.

(3) The plain-meaning approach cannot be used for general words, which are obviously capable of bearing several meanings.

(4) Not infrequently the courts say that the meaning of the words is 'plain' but then disagree as to their interpretations.

(5) The plain-meaning theory may be acceptable outside the courtroom, since it could be true that a high proportion of statutory materials and other legal documents can in fact be interpreted without recourse to any mischief or golden rule.

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