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The Honourable Murray Gleeson AC

Statutory Interpretation

purpose of the statute. A consideration that may be relevant in the case of a taxing Act is that taxpayers may order their affairs upon a certain understanding of the meaning of a certain text, and it may be unjust to defeat that understanding upon the basis, not of an amendment of the text itself, but of an alteration of some other text, or contextual matter.

It used to be said that there is no equity in a tax; that taxation is an exercise of power to obtain revenue for the business of government; that such power almost always involves some form of discrimination between potential contributors to the revenue; and that courts should simply let the cards lie where they fall. That was said, however, in the days when courts construed taxing laws narrowly. The modern emphasis on purposive construction, and full regard to context in its broadest sense, may cut both ways. It protects the revenue authorities against obstructive liberalism, but may also protect taxpayers against over-reaching.

In the practical application of the general principles I have discussed, more specific problems arise, many of which are the subject of long-established rules of construction, Furthermore, the Acts Interpretation Act of the Commonwealth (like its counterparts in the States and Territories) contains provisions which, subject to a contrary intention appearing in an Act, direct courts in interpreting legislation. Some of those provisions, like the interpretation provisions in a contract, aim to provide a shorthand to relieve a drafter of tedious elaboration or repetition. Legislation is drafted on the footing that an Act will be read in the knowledge of the interpretation Acts and judicially established rules of construction.

Drafting income tax legislation is a difficult and thankless task. During my time at the Bar I had some brief and marginal involvement in the process and I had a glimpse of its complexity. The constraints within which drafters work are not

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


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