This is a single section from Chapter 12. Read the full chapter here.

Have you considered the key principles of statutory interpretation?

The primary rules of statutory interpretation should be considered when designing legislation.


The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in light of its purpose (Interpretation Act s 5):


  • Generally words in an enactment will be given their natural or ordinary meanings. However an Act must be read as a whole; and other factors, such as the surrounding words, the subject matter of the relevant part of the Act, and the overall scheme of the Act will sometimes call for a different interpretation. The use of an interpretation section can greatly reduce the scope for ambiguity.
  • Other features of the enactment, such as the table of contents, headings, marginal notes, diagrams, graphics, examples and explanatory material, as well as the organisation and format of the Act, may also be considered as part of the interpretation task.
  • The purpose provision of the Act is a key aid to interpretation. Each new Act should have a purpose provision and, if possible, every provision in the Act should be interpreted consistently with the purpose provision. The large pool of sources that the courts will draw on in interpreting an Act highlights the need to ensure that the Act has internal coherence, and a clear purpose or policy objective that is adequately reflected in the provisions of the Act and any explanatory material.
  • Some Acts, such as Treaty settlement Acts (see Chapter 4) and the Parliamentary Privilege Act 2014, have specific provisions directing the reader how to interpret them.


An enactment applies to circumstances as they arise (Interpretation Act s 6): Where possible legislation should be “future-proofed” by ensuring that it is flexible enough to properly address foreseeable developments in technology or society generally.


An enactment does not have retrospective effect (Interpretation Act s 7): See Chapter 11.


Interpretation consistent with NZBORA is to be preferred wherever possible: See Chapter 5.


Common law rules of statutory interpretation: While many of the fundamental principles of statutory interpretation are reflected in the Interpretation Act, a number continue to exist in the common law. One such principle is that where a list of specific things is followed by a general description of those things. The general description is presumed to be restricted to the same class as the specific references. This principle is referred to as ejusdem generis. Another example is the presumption that Parliament will intend to legislate consistently with fundamental human rights and New Zealand’s international obligations.

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