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The Australian National University

Is the High Court Mistaken about the Aim of Statutory Interpretation?

Dale Smith (2016) 44 (2)

A central tenet of the High Court of Australia’s account of statutory interpretation is that the aim when interpreting a statutory provision is to ascertain the meaning of the words contained in that provision. The goal of this article is to challenge that tenet, which I call “the meaning thesis”. I argue that the High Court’s acceptance of the meaning thesis leaves it unable to account for important features of the practice of statutory interpretation. In particular, it struggles to account for the ways in which statutory provisions interact with other legal norms (including other statutory provisions), especially when those other norms are introduced into the law after the statutory provisions with which they interact. This, I argue, provides a powerful reason to abandon the meaning thesis. I conclude by briefly suggesting how we might begin to develop a more satisfactory account of statutory interpretation.

Vol 44, Issue 2, 2016

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