There are two types of approaches to interpreting statutes; literalism and purposive. Literalism is generally defined as the interpretation of words in their usual or most basic sense, while purposive is generally defined as the interpretation of words based upon having or being done with a purpose. If you look at a historical context for legal systems based upon common law and derived from the English tradition, literalism is the basis for most legislative interpretation, while those systems based upon the civil law tradition mainly utilize the purposive technique to interpreting statutes.

These two main approaches to statutory interpretation are based upon either using the words of a statute based upon their literal meaning, that’s where we come up with the literalism theory, or using the words of a statute based upon their intended purpose or the purposive approach to statutory interpretation. The plain meaning rule is derived from this theory of statutory interpretation. Under this approach, a court takes a literal approach to legislative interpretation when the statutory language is hopefully precise and doesn’t contain ambiguity.

On the other hand, according to purposive interpretation, the purpose of the text is not part of the text itself. Instead, the judge determines the purpose of the statute, based upon information that the judge has obtained to ascertain the intent of the legislature.

In my mind, these two main theories of statutory interpretation result in judges and bill drafters being intertwined. This is because judges have developed their approaches to interpretation on the basis of the way legislation is drafted. In turn, legislative counsel are influenced by judicial practice on interpretation.

In the end, both theories of interpretation are intended to ensure that the judicial branch is interpreting the statute in the manner desired by the legislative branch of government. Statutory interpretation is intended to respect the fact that the Legislature is the supreme lawmaker in the land. Of course, judicial problems arise when the judiciary branch attempts to determine the intent of the Legislature when examining the language of a statute that is at the center of a legal dispute. In many instances, it’s difficult to ascertain the intent of the legislative branch from just the words of the text itself.

You can read the transcript of the audio in today’s post here.

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