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The Honourable Murray Gleeson AC

Statutory Interpretation

One practical consequence of the modern approach to the use of extrinsic material as an aid to interpretation is that modern courts now expect counsel to have investigated potentially useful material. Courts now ask whether reports, or explanatory memoranda, or Ministerial speeches, throw light on a problem of construction. They expect this kind of research to be undertaken as a routine part of preparation for a hearing.

The language of S 15AB reflects the paramount importance, in the modern approach to statutory interpretation, of purpose and context. Regard to these considerations does not depend upon first finding some ambiguity in the text. At the same time, the use that is made of them must be related to the object of the exercise, which is to understand the meaning of the text.

In order that the purpose of a legislative provision may be used rationally to elucidate the meaning of the provision, it may be necessary to identify a purpose accurately and at an appropriate level of specificity. At one level, it may be correct to say that the purpose of an income tax Act is to raise revenue for the government. Such an observation would not advance an understanding of a particular provision because, in truth, the purpose is more precise. It is to raise revenue for the government, not by all means possible but in accordance with a detailed and complex plan of fiscal policy. If a dispute arises as to the meaning of a section of the Act, or a word or phrase in a section, the relevant purpose, if there is one to be found, will be the purpose of the particular aspect of the fiscal plan in which the provision is to be found.

Much legislation, including revenue legislation, involves compromise. Parliaments rarely pursue a single purpose at all costs. The problem of interpretation may be to decide how far Parliament has gone. Its general purpose may be clear enough, but the dispute may be as to the extent to which

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


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