The interpretation of statutes

An Act does not become law until it receives the signature of the Queen, the royal assent. But even then, an Act sometimes contains a provision which says that it does not come into effect until a commencement order is made later on by a government minister. When lawyers interpret an Act of Parliament they look primarily at the precise words Parliament has used in the relevant section, but they read them in the context of the whole statute so as to make the best overall sense of that section in the scheme of the Act as a whole. They also read the words bearing in mind any indications about the general objective the Act was setting out to promote, or as it is sometimes put in more old fashioned legal language, having regard to the mischief or defect in the law which the Act was intended to remedy. An Act may itself provide clues about that or it may be necessary to refer to the general background of the state of the law when the Act was passed or to form reports called white papers, which the government issued to explain its proposals for legislation. Statutes are also to be interpreted in the light of certain well-settled presumptions about what parliament is usually understood to mean, even though it does not spell that out in terms in the Act which is to be interpreted.

The presumptions about meaning may be overwritten if parliament makes it clear that it intends they should not apply. Some of those presumptions are contained in the Interpretation Act 1978, such as the words importing the masculine gender, like ‘he’ or ‘his’, are taken to import feminine as well, ‘she’, ‘her’. Other presumptions, such as that Statues are presumed not to have retrospective effect, are derived from settled principles stated by the judges in cases. You should also be aware that in some special situations where rules of European Union law or the Convention rights under the Human Rights Act apply, special rules of interpretation govern.

The courts are required to interpret statutory provisions in a way which conforms to EU law or to the Convention rights if it is possible to do so. We've already seen section 3.1 of the Human Rights Act and here we see it again. This is the provision which creates this special rule of interpretation in relation to Statutes which operate where convention rights apply. In very difficult cases, where the interpretation of a section in an Act is not clear, the final determination of the meaning to be given to that section may depend on the complex interplay of all these factors. The words of the section, the scheme of the act, the mischief it was intended to remedy, and background presumptions and special rules of interpretation.

Source: Oxford University Press

Credit: © OUP 2012