Statutory Interpretation Tips
An excruciatingly hefty proportion of your law degree depends on your skills of statutory interpretation. It is this skill you should feel most determined to harvest and hack at whenever you can.
Only now that I’ve landed a job in law where I receive requests for the definition of ‘indictment’ on a daily basis, have I comprehended the true majesty of flawless interpretation.
Although all universities offering law have an obligation to show you the ropes of statutory interpretation, it is imperative that you keep the following tips in the back of your noggin when you’re dealing with that unholy kerfuffle of numbers and alien speak.
Nothing is Isolated
Once you’ve identified the Short Title of the Act, it’s essential to glean its purpose from the Long Title which oft states ‘An Act for the purpose of [x] ...and for related purposes.’ This, in addition to the vast table of contents, jurisdiction and definition section, gives the Act context in its entirety. Remember, some legislation has more than one definition section pertaining to different parts of the Act, just because those involved in the legislative love collecting our stress sweat in tiny vials in order to keep their skin luminous.
Think of these preliminary steps as a kind of mapping exercise: you’re skimming the Act to suss out its overall meaning. Nailed it? Not quite yet. Here’s where it gets tricky…
There are Tools to Guide you
The next step is to look for the Interpretation Act relevant to your jurisdiction. You think you know the meaning of ‘day’, ‘month’, ‘minister’, ‘shall’, ‘may’ or ‘until’? Think again.
Unfortunately, us purveyors of the law have to realise early on that varying jurisdictions prescribe certain meanings to words that may seem ordinary without their legal context. For ordinary words not covered by Interpretation Acts, have your English dictionary handy.
Furthermore, always keep in mind that material extrinsic to the Act itself can help to give it perspective. Particularly significant is the Second Reading Speech, in which the Act is explained and introduced into Parliament. Are we having fun yet?
Pay Close Attention
Statutory Interpretation is a fine art and although you might never be the Picasso of your craft, you can try and come pretty close.
Thus, when reading a section of an Act pay close attention to the connecting words as well as the substantive ones. Words such as ‘until’, ‘but’ and ‘or’ which you had down pat in the first grade have a key role in how legislation is actioned. As such, it is important to double check how you are reading sections correctly and cross-reference the definition section, Interpretations Acts then head to your trusted dictionary if all else fails.
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