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  • Identifying a beneficial or remedial purpose of legislation may be a useful tool in statutory interpretation, especially where provisions are ambiguous or have more than one open construction.
  • However, the text is still the primary consideration: the interpretation must be open on the words of the provision.
  • If the only open interpretation is inconsistent with an otherwise beneficial purpose, or if the text of a provision reveals it has a purpose which is contrary to, or limits, the beneficial purpose, a purposive approach cannot be used to effectively rewrite the provision.

Common statutory interpretation tool is the principle that legislation with a beneficial or remedial purpose will be construed according to that purpose, giving the legislation a ‘fair, large and liberal’ interpretation, rather than one which is ‘literal or technical’ (IW v City of Perth (1997) 191 CLR 1, 12 per Brennan CJ and McHugh J, 39 per Gummow J).

However, the beneficial nature of a particular statute may only be part of the full context. Characterisation of legislation as beneficial is not necessarily determinative of the interpretation of all provisions.

General relevance of context and purpose

The High Court has observed:

‘The process of construction begins with a consideration of the ordinary and grammatical meaning of the words of the provisions having regard to their context and legislative purpose’ (Australian Education Union v Department of Education and Children’s Services (2012) 248 CLR 1; [2012] HCA 3, [26] (emphasis added)).

Their Honours also held:

‘In construing a statute it is not for a court to construct its own idea of a desirable policy, impute it to the legislature and then characterise it as a statutory purpose. The statutory purpose in this case was to be derived from a consideration of the scheme of the Act as a whole, the respective functions of [certain parts] of the Act, and the regulatory requirements of [another part] of the Act’ (at [28] (references omitted)).

This statement of principle is entirely consistent with earlier authority (see, for example, Project Blue Sky Inc v Australian Broadcasting Authority (1998) 194 CLR 355; [1998] HCA 28, [91]).

In Certain Lloyd’s Underwriters v Cross (2012) 248 CLR 378; [2012] HCA 56, Kiefel J recognised that the ‘context’ of a statute includes consideration of the statute as a whole and ‘the general purpose and policy of the legislation, in particular the mischief to which the statute is directed and which the legislature intended to remedy’ (at [88]).

However, as French CJ and Hayne J held, it is often ‘more useful to focus attention on [the] proposed construction than to investigate, in the abstract, the use of “context” in statutory interpretation’ (at [32]).

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