Duport Steels Ltd v Sirs: HL 3 Jan 1980

Judiciary must Interpret, not Remedy the Law

The House emphasised the need for courts to be even handed in interpreting statutes dealing with industrial relations. Where the words of the statute are plain and unambiguous, the Court ought to give effect to that plain meaning.
Lord Diplock said: ‘My Lords, at a time when more and more cases involve the application of legislation which gives effect to policies that are the subject of bitter public and parliamentary controversy, it cannot be too strongly emphasised that the British constitution, though largely unwritten, is firmly based upon the separation of powers; Parliament makes the laws, the judiciary interpret them. When Parliament legislates to remedy what the majority of its members at the time perceive to be a defect or a lacuna in the existing law (whether it be the written law enacted by existing statutes or the unwritten common law as it has been expounded by the judges in decided cases), the role of the judiciary is confined to ascertaining from the words that Parliament has approved as expressing its intention what that intention was, and to giving effect to it. Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they themselves consider that the consequences of doing so would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral. In controversial matters such as are involved in industrial relations there is room for differences of opinion as to what is expedient, what is just and what is morally justifiable. Under our constitution it is Parliament’s opinion on these matters that is paramount . .’
A statute passed to remedy what is perceived by Parliament to be a defect in the existing law may in actual operation turn out to have injurious consequences that Parliament did not anticipate at the time the statute was passed; if it had, it would have made some provision in the Act in order to prevent them . . But if this be the case it is for Parliament, not for the judiciary, to decide whether any changes should be made to the law as stated in the Acts . . It endangers continued public confidence in the political impartiality of the judiciary, which is essential to the continuance of the rule of law if judges, under the guise of interpretation, provide their own preferred amendments to statutes which experience of their operation has shown to have had consequences that members of the court before whom the matter comes consider to be injurious to the public interest . . The legitimate questions for a judge in his role as interpreter of the enacted law are: ‘How has Parliament, by the words that it has used in the statute to express its intentions, defined the category of acts that are entitled to the immunity? Do the acts done in this particular case fall within that description?”
Lord Scarman said: ‘If Parliament says one thing but means another, it is not, under the historic principles of the common law, for the courts to correct it . . We are to be governed not by Parliament’s intentions but by Parliament’s enactments’ and ‘in the field of statute law the judge must be obedient to the will of Parliament as expressed in its enactments. In this field Parliament makes, and un-makes, the law: the judge’s duty is to interpret and to apply the law, not to change it to meet the judge’s idea of what justice requires’
Lord Edmund-Davies said: ‘we must apply them as they stand, however unreasonable or unjust the consequences, and however strongly we may suspect that this was not the real intention of Parliament’.

Lord Diplock, Lord Scarman, Edmund-Davies, Keith of Kinkel and Fraser of Tullybelton LL
[1980] 1 WLR 142, [1980] 1 All ER 529, [1980] ICR 161, [1980] IRLR 116
England and Wales
At CADuport Steels Ltd v Sirs CA 2-Jan-1980
. .
At EATDuport Steels Ltd v Sirs QBD 1980
. .

Cited by:
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The claimant challenged the Order as regards the prescription of the morning-after pill, asserting that the pill would cause miscarriages, and that therefore the use would be an offence under the 1861 Act.
Held: ‘SPUC’s case is that any . .
CitedIn re P (a minor by his mother and litigation friend); P v National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers HL 27-Feb-2003
The pupil had been excluded from school but then ordered to be re-instated. The teachers, through their union, refused to teach him claiming that he was disruptive. The claimant appealed a refusal of an injunction. The injunction had been refused on . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Employment, Constitutional

Leading Case

Updated: 14 November 2021; Ref: scu.200598