What is the purposive approach to statutory interpretation?

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Published on LexisPSL on 25/11/2015

The following Local Government Q&A provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • What is the purposive approach to statutory interpretation?
  • Purposive (teleological) construction
  • Purposive construction of UK law
  • Purposive construction of EU law
  • Further reading

Purposive (teleological) construction

The purposive approach has its roots in legal systems based on civil codes. It is a method of statutory interpretation which considers the purpose of the provision and interprets the provision in accordance with that purpose. In contrast, the literal approach interprets the meaning of the statute based primarily on its wording. For early authority acknowledging the concept of purposive construction see Stock v Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd per Viscount Dilhorne:

'It is now fashionable to talk of a purposive construction of a statute, but it has been recognised since the 17th century that it is the task of the judiciary in interpreting an Act to seek to interpret it 'according to the intent of them that made it'

The purposive approach is derived from the European ‘teleological’ approach, which focuses on the spirit and purpose of the legislation. Purposive construction as applied in the UK tends to be more literal and should be considered in the context of the rules of construction (including the mischief rule) applied by UK courts for many years. For examination of the purposive construction in principle, see James Buchanan & Co Ltd v Babco Forwarding & Shipping (UK) Ltd per Lord Denning:

'[European judges] adopt a method which they call in English by strange words—at any rate they were strange to me—the “schematic and teleological” method of interpretation. It

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