Interpretation and Context

Here is a great passage from an Australian case (Mainteck Services v. Stein Heurtey) on contractual interpretation:

What is the legal meaning of a promise to sell “my Dürer drawing”, if the vendor’s wife owns a Dürer drawing which is on display in their home, and the vendor keeps another secretly in his study? What is the meaning of a gift “to my niece Eliza Woodhouse during her life” in a will, if the testator had no such niece, but a grandniece of that name, and another grandniece, who was illegitimate, who lived with him: cf In re Fish; Ingham v Rayner [1894] 2 Ch 83? What is the meaning of cl 7 of the Wild Dog Destruction Regulation 1999, which provided “The Wild Dog Destruction Regulation 1994 is repealed”? Contracts, wills and statutes are very different legal texts, to the process of ascertaining whose legal meaning different rules apply, yet all are based on language, and language is unavoidably contextual. If I may repeat what I wrote of the uncertain meaning of the Wild Dog Destruction Regulation in Resolving Conflicts of Laws (Federation Press 2011), p 13, “The meaning of even the seemingly clearest legal text can be unclear, hence the importance of attending to context in the first instance.”

In a similar vein, Morissette J.A. recently wrote:

[9] En ce sens, parler en matière de révision judiciaire d’une « erreur déraisonnable » risque de créer une fâcheuse confusion des genres. Il ne peut pas y avoir plusieurs réponses à la question 2 + 2 = ? Il n’y en a qu’une seule, toutes les autres sont erronées, aucune d’entre elles n’est « raisonnable » et qualifier les unes ou les autres de « déraisonnables » n’ajoute strictement rien à la compréhension des choses. Mais en matière d’interprétation juridique et de révision judiciaire, on est loin de l’arithmétique élémentaire. Et en l’absence d’une décision ou d’une interprétation déraisonnable, la réponse à privilégier est celle donnée par le tribunal administratif que le législateur a désigné comme le décideur dont ce genre de litige est la spécialité – ici, le TAQ.
Frères Maristes (Iberville) c. Laval (Ville de), 2014 QCCA 1176.

Interpretation is not arithmetic and much will turn on context. In administrative law, context will often be best appreciated by an administrative decision-maker, the body designated by the legislature to undertake that interpretive task.

This content has been updated on August 1, 2014 at 09:28.