It has been said that this rule of statutory interpretation is the most neutral rule in that the legislative intent isn't considered and therefore the role of courts is restricted to impartial judgements rather than taking the side of the lawmakers. but is this necessarily true? and is rule of lenity compatible with plain meaning rule?

edit; basically do plain meaning rule and/or strict construction rule take into account possible absurd or "cruel" outcomes of such interpretation?

1 Answer 1


Language-based principles of statutory interpretation work in favor of those who seek to exercise their freedom of choice within the confines of objectively-defined law. The basic principle is that laws should state clearly what is prohibited, and what the consequence of violating the law should be. The paper "Eight ways to fail to make law" by Lon Fuller briefly elaborates on negative consequences of making law unknowable to those subject to the law. If lawmakers all agree on the principle to be encoded in a law, the principle is rationally justified, and they express that agreement with complete clarity, then as long as the courts adhere to the law as written, there will be justice. But you probably noticed a lot of "ifs" in that formula.

Various "literalist" i.e. textualist strains of interpretation place highest priority on the words of the law, as opposed to the motivation for the words (the intent). Even with that assumption, it is an everyday occurrence in reading laws that legal language is not unambiguous, so some additional guidelines are required in order to handle the situation - which should not arise under the 'complete clarity' premise – that laws can be interpreted in more than on way, just on the basis of plain old grammar. The 'plain meaning' rule provides an interpretive rule for narrowing down the possible interpretations of a text. The word "school" has a plain meaning that speakers of English know; but a legislature can write a law that redefines "school" for a specific piece of law to mean something different, such as "any building of two stories constructed with state money earmarked for educational or cultural use", which is not what "school" ordinarily means. The rule both allows ordinary word-meanings to be usurped, yet relied on when there is no special usurpation of meaning by the legislature.

The rule of lenity is a sort of last-place principle of interpretation – if there is no other higher-ranked rule of interpretation, and a statute still has two viable interpretations, then the interpretation that disfavors the defendant is rejected. The rule of lenity is subordinate to the plain meaning rule, which means that a contorted meaning is not available just in case a defendant can come up with some basis in an obscure art for a competing interpretation of "dog" (a mechanical device, not an animal, crucial to the argument that the defendant didn't violate the 'no dogs allowed' law).

There are many language-based rules of interpretation, and there are as many or maybe more rules of interpretation that set aside consideration language in favor of a particular intended outcome.

  • from what I've read , rule of leniety is the only interpretation rule that directly works in the favour of the accused. is this true ?
    – user49663
    Apr 1, 2023 at 9:21
  • AFAIK that is the only rule frames in terms of defendants.
    – user6726
    Apr 1, 2023 at 14:32
  • @IndianLawDropout lenity has only one E.
    – phoog
    Apr 2, 2023 at 1:14

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