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The Honourable Murray Gleeson AC

Statutory Interpretation

judicial power, it is necessary to keep in mind all aspects of that difference, including the power of Parliament to override judicial interpretation. Before leaving the subject of legislative purpose, I should refer to a more particular matter which is often of significance for the interpretation of revenue legislation, including amending legislation. One of the oldest and most venerable rules of construction is that uncertainty in the meaning of the text may be resolved by considering the mischief which the statute set out to remedy. In the case of amending legislation, that mischief may be found in a previous application of the law which Parliament set out to alter. The specific purpose may be clear from previous decisions of courts, or the parliamentary history of the legislation, or both.

I turn now to the matter of context. Keeping always in mind the primacy of the text, and the constitutional responsibility of a court to confine itself to its proper role of interpreting what Parliament has said, the meaning of language is commonly controlled by context. Both text and context should be understood widely. Individual words and phrases are only part of a text. By context, I mean not only the immediate provision, or set of provisions, of which the disputed text is a part, but the entire Act, the constitutional powers or limitations controlling its enactment, the background of previous law, and any other matter that could rationally assist an understanding of the meaning of the text.16 In ordinary communication, it is commonplace for words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs to take their meaning from their context. Earlier, I gave an example of the meaning of the phrase “necessarily incurred” in s 51 of the 1936 Act. In many contexts it has a meaning different from that it was given in Ronpibon Tin. Even the judicial explanation of its meaning in s 51 needs to be read in context. It expressed the idea that such questions are not totally unconfined, and that the


Bennion, Bennion on Statutory Interpretation, (London, Lexis Nexus 2008) at 588-589, 919.

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


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