When a court case involves statutes (also called legislation or Act), judges usually have to interpret the statutes as the meaning is not always clear. As a law student, you will also be expected to conduct statutory interpretation. This will usually be in the form a problem question – you are given a scenario and must advise your client on how the statute is likely to apply to his/her situation.
The general process for completing a statutory interpretation problem question:
Does the Act have the relevant jurisdiction over this matter? I.e. if it is a Commonwealth matter, the Commonwealth legislation should be looked at. If it is a state matter, the relevant state’s legislation should be used. Was the Act in force (already commenced) at the time that this matter arose?
Text, Context, Purpose
The modern approach for interpreting statutes is known as the ‘text, context, purpose’ approach.
Text – looking simply at the grammatical/ordinary meaning of the words/phrases. If there is no ambiguity, then this is how the words/phrases will be interpreted.
Context – if there is ambiguity about the meaning of words, we then move on to looking at the context of the words. We look at the words/phrases surrounding the ambiguous words to see if this adds a clearer meaning; we look at the relevant sections and sub-sections.
Purpose – if there is still ambiguity, we can look at extrinsic materials (i.e. secondary sources) to determine the purpose of the Act that Parliament intended. We need to question why Parliament decided to introduce this Act, and what was Parliament trying to achieve or prevent.
This purposive approach aims to ‘give effect to legislative intention… which the legislature cannot always foresee but must have intended to deal with’ (Kingston v Keprose ).
“…the duty of the court is to give the words of a statutory provision the meaning that the legislature is taken to have intended them to have. Ordinarily, that meaning (the legal meaning) will correspond with the grammatical meaning of the provision. But not always. The context of the words, the consequences of a literal or grammatical construction, the purpose of the statute or the canons of construction may require the words of a legislative provision to be read in a way that does not correspond with the literal or grammatical meaning.”
Project Blue Sky Inc v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1998)
Acts must be interpreted according to the interpretation legislation of the relevant jurisdiction. The Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth) is used for interpreting all Commonwealth Acts.
- When interpreting parts of an Act, the interpretation that best achieves the purpose or object of the Act is to be preferred (Section 15AA).
- Extrinsic materials can be used to interpret Acts if the meaning of phrases are unclear (Section 15AB). Examples: Royal Commission reports, committee reports, explanatory memorandum of a Bill and the second reading speech.
- There is also a definitions section that defines common words/phrases used in Acts.
Each jurisdiction, has its own Interpretation Act which must be referred to when interpreting statutes created in those jurisdictions. E.g. it is called the Interpretation Act 1987 in NSW, Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984 in Victoria, and the Acts Interpretation Act 1954 in Queensland, to name a few. These Acts similarly allow the use of extrinsic materials for interpreting ambiguous words/phrases.
Structuring your Answer
When you have established that the Act has relevant jurisdiction in this scenario, you should use the MIRAT or ILAC method of structuring the issues in interpretation.
Material facts – the facts that need to be applied, in light of the legislation.
Issues – what are the questions that need to be answered in this scenario?
Rule – what does the statute say about this issue?
Apply the rule – how does the statute apply in your scenario?
Tentative conclusion – thus, what can you conclude? Note that this is a tentative conclusion because you can never be 100% sure about how an actual court would interpret the statute.
Complete this structure for each of your legal issues.
This method is very similar to MIRAT, except you do not state the material facts first. Instead, you simply state the relevant facts when applying the rule.
Apply the law