5.2.2 Judicial Interpretation of Laws

Judicial interpretation of laws makes use of accepted legal principles, or agreed human rights, when making judgments about difficult cases.

Both Britain and America use Common Law as a substantial part of their legal frameworks.  This originated from an unwritten assumption that the principles of right and wrong were universally accepted (often having been influenced by religion) and that a court would decide each case appropriately.  New cases could be analysed by comparison with previous cases, and new precedents could be established if necessary – by exercise of judicial discretion.  Many points of law are never published as statutes: they are established by the cases used as precedents.  Similar philosophies apply to systems of religious law and customary law.

In his book, Is Law a System of Rules?, Ronald Dworkin argued that the law must be coherent.  It must take account of the context in which a judgement is being made.  He wrote about “the fact that when lawyers reason or dispute about legal rights and obligations, particularly in …hard cases, …they make use of standards that do not function as rules, but operate differently as principles” [Section 2, p. 43].  He defined a “principle” as “a standard that is to be observed, not because it will advance or secure an economic, political, or social situation deemed desirable, but because it is a requirement of justice or fairness or some other dimension of morality”.[1]

Both he and Hart quoted examples of cases where rules must be interpreted.  Whether this interpretation involves “discretion” or the weighing of “principles”, they agreed that the law develops by the establishment of precedents that result from rulings on cases requiring interpretation: ‘case-law’.  They also agreed that, in the process of interpretation, the judge would apply principles which come from the culture of the society to which the law applies, including what Devlin called “public morality” (5.1.4).

It is desirable to avoid the apparent arbitrariness of judges merely using their personal opinions about a society’s values when making a judicial interpretation of laws.  There are several ways of providing, modifying, and using sets of published principles that are separate from primary legislation:

●  Human rights conventions provide some of the principles that are needed to make judgments in “hard cases”. They also have a role as a legal safeguard against oppression, as is discussed at the end of this chapter (5.4.7).

●  A country’s Constitution can contain important legal principles. In America, for example, the Supreme Court uses the Constitution to help make judgments about individual cases.  Many other countries also follow a similar pattern of incorporating principles in their Constitutions – which are the subject of the next section (5.2.3).

●  Primary legislation can be less detailed and prescriptive if it is drafted with the knowledge that it would be interpreted in conjunction with published legal principles. Issues of personal freedom and fairness don’t need to be painstakingly incorporated in each piece of legislation when they are properly guaranteed by the Constitution or a Bill of Rights.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/522.htm.

[1] The quotations cited here may also be found in the book Readings in the Philosophy of Law by Keith Culver [page 192]. This page was available online on Google Books, in February 2024, at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Pd0bA2pcR30C&pg=PA192#v=onepage&q&f=false.