Interpretation of the Act

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This is a part of The Worker’s Liens Casebook, by Robert Fenwick Elliott. Copyright © 2010

Copies of text of no more than 500 words may be made, provided they are accompanied by due attribution.

  1. Obviously, the Act itself is the starting point for any consideration of what it means. The usual rules of interpretation apply. In South Australia, these are codified in the Acts Interpretation Act 1915. A couple of rules are of particular importance.

The Always Speaking Rule

  1. A question that arises especially in the interpretation of vintage legislation is this: are the words used to be given their meaning at the time they were used (contemporanea exposito est optima et fortissima in lege), or as at the time they fall to be interpreted (the “always speaking” or ambulatory approach). The answer is the latter. Section 21 of the Acts Interpretation Act 1915 provides:

21 – Act deemed always speaking

Every Act will be considered as speaking at all times, and every enactment, whether expressed in the present or the future tense, will be applied to the circumstances as they arise, so that effect may be given to each Act and every provision according to its spirit, true intent and meaning.

Accordingly, expressions used in the Act such as “manual labour” are now to be given the meaning they now have, and not the meanings they had in 1893.

The Purposive Rule

  1. Where there is ambiguity, it should be resolved according to the purpose of the Act. Originally, this rule was of somewhat limited use, since the courts were prohibited from looking at debate in parliament to ascertain what that purpose was. But now the law has been changed to allow reference to parliamentary debates[1], and ambiguities may be resolved by reference to Hansard evidence of purpose or object. The purposive rule is set out in the Acts Interpretation Act 1915:

22—Construction that would promote purpose or object of an Act to be preferred

(1)    Subject to subsection (2), where a provision of an Act is reasonably open to more than one construction, a construction that would promote the purpose or object of the Act (whether or not that purpose or object is expressly stated in the Act) must be preferred to a construction that would not promote that purpose or object.

(2)    This section does not operate to create or extend any criminal liability.

[1] See paragraph 337 at page 752 below.

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