Legal Ease, April 27
Legal language in statutes, or laws passed by legislative bodies, is sometimes hard to figure out.
That’s because a statute has to write down a general rule that applies to all cases, and that is more difficult than you might expect.
Consider, for example, a criminal law against cutting people with knives.
That seems pretty straightforward—just say “it is a crime to cut someone else with a knife.” But then what about a surgeon who is going to perform an operation?
A simple traffic rule that says you must stop at a stop sign seems hard to misunderstand, but does it apply to bicycles? Snow machines? Pedestrians? Children on rollerblades?
This means that when a judge has to apply a law, the judge has to figure out what the law means and what conduct it covers.
The principles of statutory interpretation are complex and extensive.
When I went to law school, the course on statutory interpretation lasted a full semester. That said, the basic idea is straightforward.
Judges have to interpret statutes to make them effective in dealing with the issues the legislature was trying to deal with. The purpose of the legislation is what governs.
So legislation combating gang fights with knives ought not to cover surgeons. Legislation trying to stop car crashes at intersections ought not to cover pedestrians.
In 1998 the Supreme Court wrote:
“Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.”
Of course, it’s not always obvious what the legislative purpose is, but that’s why we have judges: to make difficult decisions.
James Morton is a lawyer practising in Nunavut with offices in Iqaluit. The comments here are intended as general legal information and not as specific legal advice.