Purposive Analysis

AuthorRuth Sullivan
To achieve a sound interpretation of a legislative text, interpreters must
identify and take into account the pur pose of the legislation. This in-
cludes the purpose of the provi sion to be interpreted as well as larger
units parts, divisions, and t he Act as a whole. Once identif‌ied, the
purpose is relied on to help establish the meaning of the text. It is
used as a standa rd against which proposed interpretations are tested:
an interpretation that promotes the pur pose is preferred over one that
does not, while interpretations t hat would tend to defeat the purpose
are avoided.
Purposive ana lysis h as become a staple of modern interpretation. It
is used not only when the language of a text i s found to be ambiguous
but in every case and at every stage of interpretation. This reliance
is justif‌ied by the interaction between language and purpose t hat is
present in all communication. The listener or reader infers the purpose
from what is being said and the circumstances in which it is said, and
at the same time understands what is being said in light of the pur pose.
A strong emphasis on purpose i s also justif‌ied by a number of legal
considerations. First, a purposive approach has been mandated by the
legislature. There is a provision in ever y Canadian Interpretat ion Act
directing interpreters to give to every enactment “such fair, large and
liberal construction and interpretation as best ensure s the attainment
of its objects.” Second, much modern legislation is written in a form
that lends itself to pur posive analysis. Provisions are often drafted in
general terms and may confer a broad di scretion on off‌icials. For courts
to discern the proper scope of such provi sions, they must know their
purpose. A third factor is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,
which came into force in 1982. In its earliest Charte r decisions, the
Supreme Court of Canada emphasized the need for purposive analysis
both to give def‌inite meaning to the broad language and complex ideas
found in the Charter and to test whether legislation found to violate
its provisions might be justif‌ied under section 1. In working with the
Charter, Canadian courts h ave become accustomed to the techniques
of purposive analysis.
“Legislative purpose” can refer to a number of things. First, it may
refer to the primary aim or object of an enactment that is, the ef-
fect the legislature hopes to produce through the operation of its rules
or scheme. This objective could be a social or economic goal, such as
job creation, reducing carbon emissions, or f‌inding a cure for a dis-
ease. It could be the promotion of specif‌ic values or policies, such as
multiculturalism or res pect for privacy. Many statutes and individual
provisions have two or more primar y objects that may complement or
conf‌lict with one another. In analyzing multipurpose legislation, the
courts often have to rank or str ike a balance between competing goals.1
“Legislative purpose” may also refer to various secondary consider-
ations. These are principles or policies th at the legi slature w ishes to ob-
serve, or considerations it is obliged to take into account, in pursuing
its primar y goals. The legislat ure never pursues a goal single-mindedly,
without qualif‌ication, and at all cost s. There are always additional or
competing factors to be taken into account.2 These show up in legis-
lation in a variety of ways:
in words of restriction, qualif‌ication, or exception that limit the
reach or effectiveness of the mai n goals
in provisions that confer di scretion on off‌icials, permitting them to
respond to a range of factors
1 See, for example, R v Steel e, 2014 SCC 61 at paras 25–29 and 35 –36; Merck Frosst
Canada Ltd v Cana da (Health), 2012 SCC 3 at paras 2 –4; R v Katigbak, 2011 SCC
48 at para 38.
2 This point is m ade in Sun Indalex Finance, LLC v United Steelworkers, 2013 SCC
6 at para 174.

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