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How to read legislation (and work it to your advantage)


Legislation, statutes, Acts - whatever you call them, they can be difficult to understand. But use these tips and it should become easy to navigate around some of the most difficult laws:


  1. Learn the basics of "statutory interpretation" (often a First Year subject but it is very relevant throughout your entire degree and career!) These are: a) look at the text of the Act for the meaning of those words. This sounds obvious - but, if the meaning IS obvious, then that is what Parliament intended and that gives you your answer! The starting point is always the text of the legislation itself, and then look to extrinsic materials if you cannot get the meaning straight away. b) use the purposive approach to understand the meaning of the words - look at the legislative context and why Parliament enacted the law. c) adhere to the rules of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)!

  2. Read the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) for the Act to understand the context, and use legal encyclopedias and looseleaf services for a guide to what the Act or specific provision is about. The EM is often available on the Federal Register of Legislation (for Commonwealth/federal legislation) and on State Parliament websites. The EM explains why the Act was introduced and will often give specific examples for important provisions of the Act, and may also give you some history. This gives very important context, and can often boost your exam answer or assignment.

  3. Print out the whole Act (if it is fairly short). I know this is bad for the environment, but if you are going to use an Act for a whole semester / subject, it really helps to have a hard copy. This way, you can get a good idea of the entire Act, and you will be able to flick between sections and the Dictionary when required. Doing this from a computer screen just doesn't cut it sometimes. Then share it with the next year of students.

4. Read over the Act (or at least skim through) a few times so you can become familiar with the ideas and concepts and where particular provisions are. For those who love sticky notes, this is where you can shine! Place a sticky note on the most important provisions or Parts.

5. Don't forget the Regs! Some Acts also have accompanying Regulations, which are also legal instruments. You usually know you have to look at them when the Act refers to something being "prescribed". I will often write in pencil next to the provision of the Act the exact Reg that is prescribed so that I don't have to try to find it again everytime.

6. When answering a problem question, track through the legislation and make notes / diagrams / flow charts as you go. Many Acts require you to go back and forth through provisions to get different definitions or meanings, which is confusing, but if you make notes as to where you have been, this will show the marker that you have understood the Act and that you possess analytical skills and deductive reasoning.

Practice makes perfect - the more you familiarise yourself with legislation, and answer exam questions using legislation (with accompanying case law and analysis of course), the easier it becomes!