Aids to statutory interpretation


statutory interpretation

A law dictionary is an aid to statutory interpretation

Statutory interpretation – the process of ascertaining and clarifying the meaning of legislation and how it applies to a particular case – is one of the most difficult tasks faced by judges and magistrates. Fortunately they have a variety of resources and material to assist them. The first step for most judges is to examine any intrinsic materials – in other words, the content of the act in question. This goes beyond just examining the sections or clauses relevant to the case. The judge must consider the entire act, to gain an understanding of the context and intent of the legislation. The language of the act must be closely scrutinised to establish meanings, definitions and scope. Most modern legislation contains a list of definitions, similar to a glossary, where the meaning of key terms used in the act is explained and clarified. Judges will examine the long title of the act (the most obvious statement as to its intent) and the preamble (a longer explanation of its context, intent and objectives). Judges may also examine the structural make-up of the legislation, from the placement of punctuation to the use of divisions, sub-divisions, clauses and paragraphs.

Judges engaged in statutory interpretation can also call upon a range of external aids and information, called extrinsic materials. These extrinsic materials include, but are not limited to:


Precedent. Naturally, the judge will also consider precedents when interpreting legislation. Previous judges may have ruled on statutory meanings, intent or interpretation; if this occurred in a higher court in the same jurisdiction then it will be binding upon inferior courts. If it occurred in another jurisdiction then the judge may choose to follow it as a persuasive precedent.

Dictionaries. Both plain English and specialised legal dictionaries can be used to assist decisions about the specific meanings of words in the Act.

Parliamentary debates. Judges can refer to Hansard and review the arguments and statements made by parliamentarians when the legislation was being debated, usually during the Second Reading or committee stages. By referring to these debates, judges can better understand the motives, purposes and intentions of parliament when it passed the legislation.

Reports. If the law has come about from a recommendation by a law reform body or parliamentary committee, the judge may examine their report. The judge may also consider other government reports, such as white papers. Again, the purpose of this is to obtain a fuller understanding of why the legislation was created, its purposes and intentions.

Interpretation legislation. All Australian legal jurisdictions have active legislation that guides and determines how other legislation should be interpreted. Examples include the Interpretation of Legislation Act (Vic, 1984) and the Acts Interpretation Act (Cth, 1981). The purpose of these is to ensure that legislation is interpreted fairly and consistently throughout the jurisdiction.

Documents. If the intrinsic materials refer to any documents or data, the judge may choose to examine these. They may provide context for the legislation or more information what it was intended to address, achieve or correct.


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