Stock v Frank Jones (Tipton) Ltd: HL 1978

Where the words of a statute are clear, it is not open to the court to limit, change or disregard that meaning on the ground that the result of the legislation as drafted would be anomalous or absurd.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale said as to an argument based on the anomaly of the result of a statutory interpretation: ‘A court would only be justified in departing from the plain words of the statute were it satisfied that: (1) there is clear and gross balance of anomaly; (2) Parliament, the legislative promoters and the draftsman could not have envisaged such an anomaly, could not have been prepared to accept it in the interests of a supervening legislative objective; (3) the anomaly can be obviated without detriment to the legislative objective; (4) the language of the statute is susceptible of the modification required to obviate the anomaly.’ and ‘But it is essential to bear in mind what the court is doing. It is not declaring Parliament has said X, but it obviously meant Y, so we will take Y as the effect of the statute. Nor is it declaring Parliament has said X having situation A in mind, but if Parliament had had our own forensic situation B in mind, the legislative objective indicates that it would have said Y. So we will take Y as the effect of the statute as regards B. What the court is declaring is Parliament has used words which are capable of meaning either X or Y, although X may be the primary natural and ordinary meaning of the words, the purpose of the provision shows that the secondary sense, Y, should be given to the words. So, too, when X produces injustice, absurdity, anomaly or contradiction. The final task of construction is still, as always, to ascertain the meaning of what the draftsman has said rather than to ascertain what the draftsman meant to say. But if the draftsmanship is correct, these should coincide, so that if the words are capable of more than one meaning it is a perfectly legitimate intermediate step in construction to choose between potential meanings by various tests (statutory objective, justice, anomaly, etc) which throw light on what the draftsman meant to say.’
Lord Scarman said: ‘Mr. Yorke for the appellants sought to give the words a meaning other than their plain meaning by drawing attention to what he called the ‘anomalies’ which would result from giving effect to the words used by Parliament. If the words used be plain, this is, I think, an illegitimate method of statutory interpretation unless it can be demonstrated that the anomalies are such that they produce an absurdity which Parliament could not have intended, or destroy the remedy established by Parliament to deal with the mischief which the Act is designed to combat . . If the words used by Parliament are plain, there is no room for the ‘anomalies’ test, unless the consequences are so absurd that, without going outside the statute, one can see that Parliament must have made a drafting mistake.’
Viscount Dilhorne said: ‘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’ (Coke 4 Inst. 330).
If it were the case that it appeared that an Act might have been better drafted, or that amendment to it might be less productive of anomalies, it is not open to the court to remedy the defect. That must be left to the Legislature.
The appellants contend that in view of the anomalies which they say would result from the interpretation the respondent seeks to have placed on the paragraph, to have paragraph 8 (2) read as if it said: ‘who also took part and at the date of the dismissal were taking part in that action.’ As Stephenson L.J. said in the Court of Appeal, the paragraph does not so provide. ‘It is a strong thing to read into an Act of Parliament words which are not there, and in the absence of clear necessity it is a wrong thing to do’ said Lord Mersey in Thompson v. Goold and Co. [1910] A.C. 409, 420. ‘we are not entitled to read words into an Act of Parliament unless clear reason for it is to be found within the four corners of the Act itself’ Said Lord Loreburn L.C. in Vickers, Sons and Maxim Ltd. v. Evans [1910] A.C. 444, 445.
. . The existence of anomalies, if they exist, cannot limit the meaning to be attached to clear language in a statute.’


Lord Simon of Glaisdale, Lord Scarman, Viscount Dilhorne


[1978] 1 WLR 231, [1978] 1 All ER 948


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedYarl’s Wood Immigration Ltd and Others v Bedfordshire Police Authority CA 23-Oct-2009
The claimant sought to recover the costs of damage to their centre following a riot, saying that under the 1886 Act, they were liable. It appealed against a ruling that they were unable to claim as a public authority, saying that the 1886 Act was . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Litigation Practice

Updated: 07 May 2022; Ref: scu.377518