Aids to interpreting Acts

In Commissioner of Taxation v Consolidated Media Holdings Ltd [2012] HCA 55 at [39], the High Court of Australia summarised the basic approach to statutory interpretation (sometimes called statutory construction) as follows:

  • "'This Court has stated on many occasions that the task of statutory construction must begin with a consideration of the [statutory] text.' So must the task of statutory construction end. The statutory text must be considered in its context. That context includes legislative history and extrinsic materials. Understanding context has utility if, and in so far as, it assists in fixing the meaning of the statutory text. Legislative history and extrinsic materials cannot displace the meaning of the statutory text. Nor is their examination an end in itself."


Here are some practical tips to follow when interpreting NSW Acts:

  • The ordinary meaning of text is always the most important starting point. If the text has a clear and unambiguous meaning, the courts will give it that meaning.
  • To understand an Act, you need to look at it as a whole document rather than as a discrete set of provisions. It is wrong to read provisions in isolation without considering other provisions (for example definitions that might be located somewhere else in the Act or savings and transitional provisions located at the end of the Act).

  • If a provision of an Act could have more than one meaning, the Interpretation Act 1987, section 33 requires the meaning that promotes the purpose or object of the Act to be preferred to a meaning that would not.

  • The purpose or object of an Act can sometimes be found by looking for purposes or objects expressly stated in the Act. However, often there will not be an express statement in the Act.

  • Sometimes the purposes or objects are obvious simply by looking at what the Act is dealing with. In some cases, looking at relevant extrinsic material will be useful. Extrinsic material is material that is not included in the text of the Act. The Interpretation Act 1987, section 34 permits the use of certain extrinsic material to confirm the ordinary meaning of an Act or to determine the meaning of ambiguous or obscure provisions or provisions whose ordinary meaning would lead to manifestly absurd or unreasonable results.

  • Examples of relevant extrinsic material are the explanatory note for the Bill introduced in Parliament that resulted in the Act and speeches made by Ministers and other members of Parliament about that Bill.

  • Although the definitions for terms used in the Act will ordinarily be included in the Act, sometimes they will be found in the Interpretation Act 1987. For example, that Act, section 21 defines certain words and expressions that are commonly used in legislation.

Last updated 28 November 2023 at 13:02