Black-Clawson International Ltd v Papierwerke Waldhof Aschaffenburg AG: HL 5 Mar 1975

Statute’s Mischief May be Inspected

The House considered limitations upon them in reading statements made in the Houses of Parliament when construing a statute.
Held: It is rare that a statute can be properly interpreted without knowing the legislative object. The courts may look outside a statute in order to identify the ‘mischief’ Parliament was seeking to remedy.
The House considered limitations upon them in reading statements made in the Houses of Parliament when construing a statute.
Lord Simon of Glaisedale said: ‘But the technique of a draft Bill with commentary is so common nowadays in reports to Parliament as to excuse, I hope, some expatiation on the matter. The argument against recourse to such a commentary is that if what Parliament or parliamentarians (or, indeed any promulgators of a written instrument) think is the meaning of what is said is irrelevant, so must be the opinion of any draftsman, including the draftsman of a Bill annexed to a report to Parliament. But I confess that I find this less than conclusive. In essence, drafting, enactment and interpretation are integral parts of the process of translating the volition of the electorate into rules which will bind themselves. If it comes about that the declared meaning of a statutory provision is not what Parliament meant, the system is at fault. Sometimes the fault is merely a reflection of human fallibility. But where the fault arises from a technical refusal to consider relevant material, such refusal requires justification. The commentary on a draft Bill in a report to Parliament is not merely an expression of opinion – even if it were only that, it would be an expression of expert opinion, and I can see no more reason for excluding it than any other relevant matter of expert opinion. But actually it is more: that experts publicly expressed the view that a certain draft would have such-and-such an effect is one of the facts within the shared knowledge of Parliament and citizenry. To refuse to consider such a commentary, when Parliament has legislated on the basis and faith of it, is for the interpreter to fail to put himself in the real position of the promulgator of the instrument before essaying its interpretation. It is refusing to follow what is perhaps the most important clue to meaning. It is perversely neglecting the reality, while chasing the shadows. As Aneurin Bevan said: ‘Why read the crystal when you can read the book?’ Here the book is already open: it is merely a matter of reading on. Certainly, a court of construction cannot be precluded from saying that what the committee thought as to the meaning of its draft was incorrect. But that is one thing: to dismiss, out of hand and for all purposes, an authoritative opinion in the light of which Parliament has legislated is quite another.’
Lord Simon of Glaisdale said: ‘Once it is accepted that the purpose of ascertainment of the antecedent defect in the law is to interpret Parliament’s intention, it must follow that it is Parliament’s understanding of that law as evincing such a defect which is relevant, not what the law is subsequently declared to be.’
Lord Reid said: ‘We often say that we are looking for the intention of Parliament, but that is not quite accurate. We are seeking the meaning of the words which Parliament used. We are seeking not what Parliament meant but the true meaning of what they said.’
The court could look to a White Paper promoting legislation, to identify the mischief which the statutory provisions were enacted to avoid, but not to interpret the remedy provided by Parliament to defeat that mischief. The courts should be careful not to strain the meaning of a statute. A statutory alteration of the common law must, in the absence of clear words to the contrary, be assumed to be such as to alter the common law no further than was necessary to remedy the perceived mischief.
The principles of statutory interpretation rule out the dismantling of judge-made law by stealth: ‘There is a presumption which can be stated in various ways. One is that in the absence of any clear indication to the contrary Parliament can be presumed not to have altered the common law further than was necessary to remedy the ‘mischief.’ Of course it may and quite often does go further. But the principle is that if the enactment is ambiguous, that meaning which relates the scope of the Act to the mischief should be taken rather than a different or wider meaning which the contemporary situation did not call for.’


Lord Simon of Glaisdale, Lord Reid, Lord Wilberforce, Lord Diplock


[1975] AC 591, [1975] 2 WLR 513, [1975] 1 All ER 810, [1975] UKHL 2




England and Wales


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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 06 April 2022; Ref: scu.181222

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