Jeremy Clarkson a renowned UK motor enthusiast once mentioned that he had to credit Mercedes-Benz for when they created the first of there hybrid supercars they created a car that could both do 200mph on the autobahn and also give you all the emissions tax benefits and rebates you got from buying a Pruis. In essence keeping to the letter of the law while blatantly disregarding the spirit in which it was written.

Another example is how you can buy a decommissioned tank in the UK and because it carries more than six people and is powered by a diesel motor it counts as a people carrier and is therefore exempt from the London congestion fee.

So I was wondering if this concept of keeping to the letter of the law but disregarding the spirit in which it was written has been discussed in the American justice system?

  • The problem with the "spirit" of the law having as much weight as the "letter" of the law is that you now have two sets of laws - one written down, and one thats ephemeral in nature and changes with different peoples views...
    – user28517
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 20:58
  • There is no general answer to the title question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 22:40
  • Not sure about american courts, but here it's rather common that judges take the parliament minutes into account if they have to decide what the spirit of the law actually is.
    – PMF
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 18:52
  • I'm curious about your first example. What do you think the spirit of the law was the Mercedes broke?
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 21:57

2 Answers 2


You've basically described two of the ends of the pole in theories of jurisprudence (there are dozens of ends). There is no theory of law that relies purely on "spirit" (also no theory that actually relies on the letters uses=d in writing law), instead, everybody interprets the text (the words enacted by the government) and some people supplement their interpretation with consideration of "other factors", such as assumed legislative purpose. Certain scholars and judges are inclined to put most weight on the actual wording of the law, while others are inclined to let purposive considerations dictate the interpretation of a law. Interpreting law by W.N. Eskridge is an informative guide to supplementing a reading of the statute with anciliary considerations. Antonin Scalia is the best-known proponent of the textualist approach.


Statutory interpretation must use a purposive approach

Even though this is mandated by statute, Australian courts still tend to lean more towards textualism than most other common law jurisdictions. That is, if the interpretation of the statute is not inconsistent with the purpose, it tends to be read at face value. In most other jurisdictions, a meaning that furthers the purpose is preferred.

So, if the purpose of the tax breaks on the car is to meet the specified emissions standards, any car that does so gets them. If the purpose is to reduce emissions, then a car that met the standards but emitted more, might be excluded.

Similarly, if the purpose of the congestion fee is to reduce the number of vehicles in London the court would determine whether the decommissioned tank met that purpose. Or whether the Parliament did not have such vehicles in contemplation when they defined people mover.

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