Legislative Text

AuthorJohn Mark Keyes/Wendy Gordon
 
Legislative Text
Canadian courts have accepted that (as stated in EA Driedger’s
Modern Principle of Interpretation) words in legislation are to be
read in their ordinary and grammatical sense. is refers to the
meaning they have both as individual words (lexical) as well as in
relationship to each other in groups (sentences, clauses, and phrases)
as a matter of grammar or syntax. e sentence, “e hunter eats
shoots and leaves” illustrates lexical ambiguity in that shoots and
leaves can be verbs or nouns. Syntactic ambiguity is illustrated by
the Groucho Marx quip: “is morning I shot an elephant in my
pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I dunno.
Lexical Analysis
e courts presume law-makers intend their words to be under-
stood in their ordinary sense. is has both a practical and a legal
basis. Practically speaking, using words in their ordinary sense is
an eective means of communicating to a wide audience. Legally
speaking, the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” assumes
people are capable of understanding the law and must do so. Legis-
lation written in language to be understood in its ordinary sense
supports this assumption.
However, there is an exception to the ordinary meaning
approach: words with a technical meaning (including legal mean-
ing) will be given that meaning instead. It too responds to the need
to communicate eectively with those whom the legislation aects;
it applies when legislation deals with technical matters likely to
concern only a small portion of the general public. is section
considers each of these types of meaning and then looks at how
groups of words are interpreted.
Ordinary Meaning
Ruth Sullivan has characterized ordinary meaning in legislation as:
[T]he reader’s f‌irst impression meaning, the understanding that
spontaneously comes to mind when words are read in their immedi-
ate context in the words of Gonthier, J, “the natural mean-
ing which appears when the provision is simply read through.
e reader referred to here is an “ordinary reader” or, as Sullivan
elsewhere describes this person, a “competent language user. How-
ever, this notion of ordinary meaning is as complex as language
itself and entails many variabilities. When interpreting and apply-
ing legislation, it cannot be determined simply by asking yourself
what words mean to you.
e meaning and usage of words in a particular language often
vary from one place to another. English in Canada is not exactly the
same as in the United Kingdom or the United States. For example,
dierent words are used for many p arts of an automobile (a “trunk” in
Canada is a “boot” in the United Kingdom; “pop” in Canada is “soda”
in the United States). Variations also exist within Canada (a “cottage”
in southern Ontario is a “camp” in Quebec and northern Ontario).
Words most often have more than one possible meaning, as a
glance through any dictionary demonstrates. Although their pos-
sible meanings are often related, they sometimes have quite dierent
meanings (for example, a “f‌ile” can be either a tool for reducing the
size of something or a place for putting documents).

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