Week 4 – Context and Purpose
Things started getting really interesting this week, now that we’re past all the dry “what is legislation”, “how does it work” and “how is it made” stuff. Now we’re started looking at how to actually work with and interpret legislation (hey, what about that, there’s the name of course – if you swap the words and use a synonym!). In doing so, we start looking at what the words context and purpose mean in relation to legislation. One of the key tasks in statutory interpretation is looking at the context and purpose of legislation in order to ensure that the intent of the legislature is upheld, and do do this we look a the ordinary meaning of the words – that is, how are they perceived by the general public. Many cases have hinged on how the words are ordinarily interpreted, such as the two example cases we studied this week – Mills v Meeking  HCA 6 and Saraswati v R  HCA 21. In the latter case, the outcome hinged on the ordinary meaning of the words “indecent assault”. In the former case, the outcome resulted from an examination of the purpose of the provision, and its context and history.
In statutory interpretation, we use the word ‘context’ to refer to the interpretation of the legislation in the context of the standard public meaning of the text. As the supporting material that can be refereed to varies from item to item, as well as its relevance to the case in question, there is no comprehensive list. However, generally the intrinsic material in the Act would be examining first – such as the long title, purpose statements and Object statements where pertinent. Then the extrinsic material such as the explanatory memoranda, Hansard and second reading speeches might also be examined. Historical circumstances and government policies are used to come to a better understanding of what the intent of the legislature was in creating the provisions in question. We also have to look at the purpose of the legislation or provision in question if there is a more explicit purpose statement. In the example of the Mills v Meeking  case, it as deemed that the purpose of the legislation meant that the legislature had not intended that a vehicle must always be involved in an accident. The context of the provision had been to remove some previous mischief. These two understandings then lead to the outcome of the appeal being dismissed. So in this case, the literal meaning of the provision was rejected in preference to its intent
When interpreting legislation, the purpose and context must always be considered. In some cases, where there is a single and clear purpose, then it is a simple task to examine the context, and ensure that the perceived intent of the legislature is adhered to. When there are multiple purpose statements, and more than one possible meaning, this can be a very challenging affair. The courts will need to be very through in their examination of the context and purpose, to ensure they can come to a conclusion as to the legislature’s intent. And sometimes courts do not reach an interpretation that the legislature agrees with. However, due to the sovereignty of parliament, the legislature has the power to amend the legislation and resolve the issue.
So it is a very complicated system, but it the processes and rules are followed correctly, then consistent and appropriate outcomes should be achieved. And if they are not achieved, the legislature has the authority to make changes that ensure they will be in the future (and in the past if they choose to make retroactive changes – although this is rare).