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The Honourable Murray Gleeson AC

Statutory Interpretation

meaning of a text, not psychoanalysing some person who played a part in formulating the text.

Modern courts place much emphasis on purposive construction. This emphasis is reflected in s 15AA of the Acts Interpretation Act set out above. Again, the concept of purpose must be understood against the constitutional background I have described. It was this that led to a judicial controversy in the United Kingdom about the proper use, in the interpretation of statutes, of ministerial statements made in the course of the parliamentary process. The controversy, still perhaps unresolved, came to a head in a 1993 tax case: Pepper v Hart.12 The argument advanced by the revenue authorities in that case was contrary to an answer given in Parliament by the responsible Minister as to the intended reach of the legislation. The House of Lords held that the text of the legislation was ambiguous and the Minister’s statement could be used to resolve the ambiguity in favour of the taxpayer. The decision was not universally applauded. It was pointed out that the subjective view of an individual member of Parliament, even the responsible Minister, or for that matter the subjective view of all members of Parliament, about what a text meant, is constitutionally irrelevant. It also was noted that it could be dangerous to create a precedent whereby Ministers can amplify the scope of legislation by dropping appropriate statements into parliamentary speeches. On the other hand, it has always been legitimate to construe an Act of Parliament by reference to the mischief which it sought to remedy, if that is known. In McDonnell v Christian Brothers Trustees13, Lord Steyn said:

“It is permissible to use Hansard to identify the mischief at which a statute is aimed. It is, therefore, unobjectionable to use ministerial and other promoters’ statements to identify the objective background to legislation.


[1993] AC 593.


[2004] 1 AC 1101 at 1116-1117.

© The Honourable Murray Gleeson AC, Chief Justice of New South Wales 1988-1998, Chief Justice of Australia 1998-2008


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