Attorney-General v Prince Earnest Augustus of Hanover: HL 1957

‘legislative antecedents’ may in some circumstances constitute relevant background for the interpretation of statutes in pari materia. Words in a preamble cannot of themselves restrict the scope of enacting words, where the latter are wider or more general than the former: ‘But where it is in the preamble that the reason for restriction is to be found, the difficulty is far greater. For, as so often has been said, Parliament may well intend the remedy to extend beyond the immediate mischief: the single fact therefore that the enacting words are more general than the preamble would suggest is not enough. Something more is needed, and here lies the heart of the problem.’ and ‘On the one hand, the proposition can be accepted that ‘it is a settled rule that the preamble cannot be made use of to control the enactments themselves where they are expressed in clear and unambiguous terms’. I quote the words of Chitty LJ . . On the other hand, it must often be difficult to say that any terms are clear and unambiguous until they have been studied in their context. That is not to say that the warning is to be disregarded against creating or imagining an ambiguity in order to bring in the aid of the preamble. It means only that the elementary rule must be observed that no one should profess to understand any part of a statute or of any other document before he had read the whole of it. Until he has done so he is not entitled to say that it or any part of it is clear and unambiguous. To say, then, that you may not call in aid the preamble in order to create an ambiguity in effect means very little, and . . I would suggest that [the rule] is better stated by saying that the context of the preamble is not to influence the meaning otherwise ascribable to the enacting part unless there is a compelling reason for it. And I do not propose to define that expression except negatively by saying . . that it is not to be found merely in the fact that the enacting words go further than the preamble has indicated.’

(Lord Normand) ‘When there is a preamble it is generally in its recitals that the mischief to be remedied and the scope of the Act are defined. It is therefore clearly permissible to have recourse to it as an aid to construction of the enacting provisions. The preamble is not, however, of the same weight as an aid to construction of a section of the Act as are other relevant enacting words to be found elsewhere in the Act or even in related Acts… It is only when it conveys a clear and definite meaning in comparison with relatively obscure or indefinite enacting words that the preamble may legitimately prevail.’ (Lord Somervell) ‘The title and the general scope of the Act constitute the background of the contest. When a court comes to the Act itself, bearing in mind any relevant extraneous matters, there is, in my opinion, one compelling rule. The whole or any part of the Act may be referred to and relied on. It is, I hope, not disrespectful to regret that the subject was not left where Sir John Nicholl left it in 1826. ‘The key to the opening of every law is the reason and spirit of the law – it is the ‘animus imponentis’, the intention of the law-maker, expressed in the law itself, taken as a whole. Hence, to arrive at the true meaning of any particular phrase in a statute, that particular phrase is not to be viewed, detached from its context in the statute: it is to be viewed in connexion with its whole context – meaning by this as well the title and preamble as the purview or enacting part of the statute.’


Viscount Simonds, Lord Normand, Lord Somervell


[1957] AC 436, [1957] 1 All ER 49


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedAmiri Flight Authority v BAE Systems Plc CA 17-Oct-2003
The appellant had contracted to purchase maintenance from the defendant of aircraft it had also purchased from them. They sought damages for negligence, saying the defendants had failed to prevent a known risk of corrosion. The defendants argued . .
ApprovedRegina v Schildkamp HL 1971
The defendant was accused of defrauding the company’s creditors.
Held: Not guilty. When interpreting a statute, the words of a heading cannot have equal weight with the words of the Act. The courts sometimes have to fill lacunae in . .
CitedOliver Ashworth (Holdings) Limited v Ballard (Kent) Limited CA 18-Mar-1999
In order for the landlord to claim double rent where a tenant held over unlawfully after the tenancy was determined, the landlord must not do anything to indicate that the lease might be continuing, for example by denying the validity of break . .
CitedJackson and Others, Regina (on the Application of) v Her Majesty’s Attorney General Admn 28-Jan-2005
The 2004 Act had been passed without the approval of the House of Lords and under the provisions of the 1911 Act as amended by the 1949 Act. The 1949 Act had used the provisions of the 1911 Act to amend the 1911 Act. The claimant said this meant . .
CitedCartonneries De Thulin SA v CTP White Knight Ltd CA 25-May-2000
The claimant held patents in respect of certain CD cassette boxes. It alleged infringement. Robert Walker LJ considered the meaning of ‘makes’ in the context of such proceedings. First, the word ‘makes’ must be given a meaning which, as a matter of . .
CitedSchutz (UK) Ltd v Werit (UK) Ltd SC 13-Mar-2013
The parties disputed whether there had been an infringement of the claimant’s patent in respect for ‘intermediate bulk containers’ designed for the safe transport of liquids in bulk. They were a cage holding a plastic bottle. The defendant had a . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Litigation Practice

Updated: 06 May 2022; Ref: scu.186851