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Legal Studies Units 3 & 4 > Statutory Interpretation > Flashcards

Flashcards in Statutory Interpretation Deck (29):

Statutory interpretation

Process of a judge(s) presiding over a case where they examine the meaning of words, phrases and/or sections within a statute and gives them meaning before application in a judicial decision.
• Essentially, statutory interpretation is the process by which laws are given meaning so that they can have practical application.


Statutory interpretation example

Private Public Drunkenness case:

Defendant was charged with being drunk in a public place whilst in his car parked on a public road. The court had to interpret the phrase ‘public place’ in s.13 of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic.) 'Public place’ was interpreted broadly to encompass private cars parked on public roads.


Statutory interpretation reasons why, general explanation and 4 specifc

It is virtually impossible that every possible situation and circumstance can be accounted for in the drafting of legislation. As a result judges have a secondary role as law-makers in order to give practical effect to legislation for different cases that may arise.

Drafting mistakes
Changing nature of words
Ambiguous wording
Future circumstances


Drafting mistakes

Due to various factors (including mistakes in the drafting process and pressure to draft the act in a hurry) the drafted bill from Parliament may not actually align with the original intentions of parliament, this may result on loopholes. This requires judges to interpret the statute in line with what they believe was originally intended.


Changing nature of words

It is difficult to see all future applications of an act. As society changes, words may have a completely different meaning in the present day. This requires judges to interpret statutes in order to clarify these connotations.


Ambiguous wording

Given that legislation is drafted to cover a broad range of circumstances and situations, the wording of statutes may be fundamentally vague and parliaments intention may not be clear enough. As such, judges need to interpret how broad or conversely, how narrow the meaning of certain words/phrases should be and what the intention of the act was.


Future circumstances

When legislation is drafted they cannot always account for future circumstances (i.e. an invention that has serious legal implications if used inappropriately). Judges can still apply pre-existing laws if the words/phrases can be interpreted appropriately.


6 effects of statutory interpretation




Precedents are set for future cases. The interpretation of words in an act forms a precedent which is then read together as part of the law with the act.



The words in the act are given meaning. Courts cannot change the words but can interpret the words in an act and give meaning to them which will be applied in future cases.



When statutes are interpreted broadly, they can extend the application of the law to cover often more than Parliament intended, i.e. Tasmanian Dams Case.



When statutes are interpreted narrowly (that is, only applying to a limited range of circumstances). This can restrict the application of the statute to become more streamlined and specialised in practice.


Sam, 23, has prior convictions and drug and alcohol addictions. Sam has been charged with three indictable offences, including armed robbery. The prosecution alleges that Sam was in possession of high-heeled shoes when committing the armed robbery and, therefore, possessed an ‘offensive weapon’ within the meaning of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). Sam meets with lawyers at their office and is advised that there is no precedent for whether high-heeled shoes are an ‘offensive weapon’.

Describe the law-making process that the court will use to determine whether Sam possessed an offensive weapon within the meaning of the statute.

In order to determine whether Sam possessed an ‘offensive weapon’ within the meaning prescribed in the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) the presiding court will have to interpret the meaning of the word. This process of statutory interpretation involves a judge(s) presiding over a legal dispute, examining the meaning of words, phrases and/or sections within a statute, and giving them meaning before application in a judicial decision; in this case, the court determining how broadly the term ‘offensive weapon’ should be applied in the present case. Should no existing precedent exist, or should the court succeed in avoiding it, the court may develop a new precedent (both binding and persuasive) for future interpretation of the word in like cases.


How does statutory interpretation create law

When a judge interprets the meaning of a word, or words, in a statute, the reasoning behind this interpretation sets a precedent. The new precedent then becomes part of the law along with the statute. The judge’s decision does not change the actual words of the Act of parliament, but adds meaning to the words to be applied in future cases and situations.


Intrinsic materials

Intrinsic materials are contained in the Act itself and include:
• the words of the Act – both the section being interpreted and other sections
• the long title
• preambles
• headings, margin notes, footnotes, punctuation
• schedules.


Extrinsic materials

Extrinsic materials are those outside the Act that can be used to assist in the interpretation of the Act and include:
• parliamentary debates (recorded in Hansard)
• reports from committees and law reform bodies
• interpretation Acts
• dictionaries
• law reports.


Methods used by judges to interpret acts

Judges have developed certain principles to deal with the interpretation of statutes. They will look further so they can apply the intention of the parliament, at the time the Act was passed, to the situation before them. The courts will also look back at past decisions to see how courts have interpreted the words in the Act in previous cases as well as extrinsic and intrinsic materials.


Literal approach

When the meaning of the word or phrase is clear the court interprets the word literally according to other sections of the act.


Purposive approach

The judge will look at what the act intended to achieve when it was originally passed. Judges use extrinsic materials, intrinsic materials, past decisions, maxims and texts to determine the intention.


Past decisions

The courts may look at past decisions to identify how previous courts have interpreted particular words in an act.


Two maxims

Ejusdem generis
Noscitur a sociis


Ejusdem generis

The class rule: when several specific terms all belonging to a particular genus or class are followed by general terms, these general terms will be interpreted so as only to apply to things belonging to that class.


Noscitur a sociis

Words will be interpreted in light of the context in which they are used.



Standard and legal dictionaries
Well known legal texts


Finality of the decision

A higher court can overrule the decision of a lower court. A court of appeal may reverse the original decision. A decision may be extended to include a wider meaning, for example in the donaghue v Stevenson case negligence referred to a consumable item that could not be inspected, to a non consumable item that could be inspected (Grant v Australian Knitting Mill) through to financial/economic loss (Hedley Burne v Heller). A precedent may be narrowed through interpretation as in the case of Mutual life + citizens assurance co ltd v evatt.


Overrule effect

If a precedent is set and the case is taken to a higher court on appeal, the previous decision can be reversed and a new precedent set. Also if a new case is taken to a higher court, the higher court can overrule the previous precedent and set a new one on the interpretation of the word/s.


Bound Effect

The parties to the case are bound by the decision. Once a court has reached a decision then the parties are bound by the decisions unless one part appeals against the decision and the decision is reversed.


Ambiguous wording example

For example, in the case of Davies v. Waldron (1989), the court was asked to interpret the phrase ‘start to drive’ found in S48 and S49 of the Road Safety Act 1986 (Vic.). Did the accused who was sitting in the car (with a blood alcohol level of over .05), while the engine was running, start to drive the car? The Supreme Court found that the accused was in charge of the motor vehicle and did start to drive the motor vehicle within the meaning of the Road Safety Act.


Evatt case

Evatt was unsuccessful in seeking compensation for negligent advice from Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co Ltd. The reason for the decision was:
a duty of care only existed if the person whose advice was being relied on was holding himself out as possessing some special skill or competence to give that sort of advice.

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