London and North Eastern Railway v. Berriman

CITATION[1946] AC 278
COURT 
JUDGES/CORAMLord Simonds, Lord Porter, and Lord MacMillan
DATE OF JUDGEMENT 

Introduction

Statutory interpretation is a function done by courts all across the globe. The focus of the exercise of interpretation is the words used in the impugned legislation or statute. In interpreting and construing any given statute, there are essentially three rules which the courts may put to use, apart from language and other materials: the Literal rule, the Golden rule, and the Mischief rule. The first rule relies upon the actual meaning of the word by the dictionary, grammar, and natural usage. In the present case, the learned judges relied upon the literal interpretation of the concerned statute to arrive at a verdict.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: A railway worker was killed while he was oiling the railway track. No lookout for the person had been provided either by the railway authorities. The widow sought compensation of her husband’s death from the railway authority, i.e., from London and North Eastern Railways. A statute provided compensation payable on death for those ‘relaying or repairing’ the track. As per the final judgment on the case, the widow was not entitled to her compensation.

Issues

The main issue in the case is: Whether or not the widow of the deceased railway worker was entitled to compensation on her husband’s death.

Summary of court decision and judgment

The case involved interpretation of a statute and after due interpretation, the learned judges of the Court held that the widow was not entitled to compensation for the death of her husband while doing railway work as the work of ‘oiling’ did not fall under the categories provided by the statute.

Analysis

The Literal rule of interpretation is the first rule applied by judges to interpret any statute. As per the rule, the words of a statute are taken to mean as they are in natural usage. In other words, the plain, ordinary, and grammatical meanings of words are used. In the present case, on the application of the literal rule, ‘oiling’ did not fall under either of the categories of ‘relaying or repairing’. Only the latter words were mentioned in the statute which provided for compensation.

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Furthermore, even if the judges wanted to apply the mischief rule, they could not. There was no ambiguity in the words therefore; the rule could not be applied. Unfortunately, the widow was entitled to nothing. The Judges of the Court also stick to the literal meaning of the words ‘relay’ and ‘repair’ and held accordingly against the widow.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the Court’s decision was incorrect. It was flawed because the statute provided for compensation for the death of workers during ‘relay or repair’; both the words are connected with the actual work undertaken during the course of employment. The work of oiling was also a work in the course of employment of the deceased worker, and hence, his widow should have been entitled to compensation. Restricting the compensation just because the oiling was not literally incorporated in the statute was not a correct verdict on the Court’s part.

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