equity-of-the-statute rule – a statute should be interpreted according to the legislators’ purpose and intent, even if this interpretation goes well beyond the literal meaning of the text

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equity-of-the-statute rule:

1. In statutory construction, the principle that a statute should be interpreted according to the legislators’ purpose and intent, even if this interpretation goes well beyond the literal meaning of the text; the doctrine that the supposed fair application intended for an enactment is the interpreter’s paramount concern, allowing departure from the statute’s literal words.  *  This statute-specific ally of purposivism arose in the Middle Ages, mostly fell into disuse by the Renaissance, was thoroughly rejected for most of the 19th century, and has made spasmodic comebacks in American law since then. [1]

equity of statute – the reason and spirit underlying a statute as aids to its interpretation. 50 Am J1st Stat § 304. [2]

Related and Similar Doctrines:

golden rule – (1) the doctrine that legal terms should be taken into context to avoid absurdity or inconsistency; or (2) an argument given to jurors to consider a litigant’s position. 

purposivism – texts are to be interpreted to achieve the social, economic, and political objectives that drafters had in mind.

mischief rule (1861) In statutory construction, the doctrine that a statute should be interpreted by first identifying the problem (or “mischief ”) that the statute was designed to remedy and then adopting a construction that will suppress the problem and advance the remedy.  *  This is a primarily British name for purposivism (see PURPOSIVISM).  Under this approach, “the words of the text are expanded or contracted from their usual meaning to carry out the legislative purpose,” and “[tlhere is no need to first find the text ambiguous or uncertain before obtaining from other sources an understanding of the purpose of the statute.” Unif. Statute & Rule Construction Act § 18 cmt. (1995). Originally, however, the rule was to be applied only in cases of ambiguity — that is, when the literal rule was inapplicable.  See Rupert Cross, Precedent in English Law 183 (1961).

     The classic and most ancient statement of the rule occurred in Heydon’s Case:

     “For the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law) four things are to be discerned and considered:

  • first, what was the common law before the making of the act.
  • Second, what was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide.
  • Third, what remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth.
  • And fourth, the true reason of the remedy; and then the offence of all the judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the act, pro bono publico.” Heydon’s Case, 3 Rep. 7a (1584).

    The prevailing scholarly view todya is that the mischief rule represents “the last remnant of the equity of a statute.” ].H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History 212 (4th ed. 2002). — aka rule in Heydon’s Case; purpose approach.  See PURPOSIVISM.  Cf. GOLDEN RULE; PLAIN-MEANING RULE; EQUITY-OF-THE-STATUTE RULE.

absurdity doctrine – The principle that a provision in a legal instrument may be either disregarded or judicially corrected as n error (esp. when the correction is textually simple) if failing to do so would result in a disposition that no reasonable person could approve. — aka absurdity canon; absurdity principle; absurd-result principle; presumption against absurdity.



happiness, right to pursue (1829) 1. Constitutional law. The constitutional right to pursue any lawful business or activity that might yield the highest enjoyment, increase one’s property, or allow the development of one’s faculties as long as it is not inconsistent with others’ rights.  *  This is considered a penumbral rather than explicit right under the U.S. Constitution.
See Declaration of Independence. [1]

outcome responsibility  – (1988) 1. The view that those who cause harm are responsible for it …

plain-language movement (1978) 1. The loosely organized campaign to encourage legal writers and business writers to write clearly and concisely without legalese ~ while preserving accuracy and precision.  2. The body of persons involved in this campaign. —aka plain English movement.

plain meaning. See MEANING.

plain~meaning rule. (1937) l. The doctrine that if a legal text is unambiguous it should be applied by its terms without recourse to policy arguments, legislative history, or any other matter extraneous to the text unless doing so would lead to an absurdity.  *  Though often applied, this rule is often condemned as simplistic because the meaning of words varies with the,verbal context and the surrounding circumstances, not to mention the linguistic ability of the users and readers (including judges). Cf. GOLDEN RULE; MISCHIEF RULE; EQUITY-OF-THE STATUTE RULE.

“(Where the language of an enactment is clear, and construction according to its terms does not lead to absurd or impracticable consequences, the words employed are to be taken as the final expression of the meaning intended.” U.S. v. Mo. Pac. R.R., 278 U.S. 269, 278 (1929).

“On its positive side, the plain meaning rule states a tautology: Words should be read as saying what they say. The rule tells us to respect meaning but it does so without disclos« ing what the specific meaning is. At best, it reafnrms the preeminence of the statute over materials extrinsic to it. in its negative aspect, on the other hand, the rule has some-t times been used to read ineptly expressed language out of its proper context, in violation of established principles of meaning and communication. To this extent it is an impediment to interpretation.” Reed Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes 229 (1975).



Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is compiled in accordance with Fair Use.

[1]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black, Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-61300-4

[2]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary with Pronunciations Third Edition by James A. Ballantine (James Arthur 1871-1949).  Edited by William S. Anderson.  © 1969 by THE LAWYER’S CO-OPERATIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY.  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-30931

[3]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.


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