Faculty of Law

Faculty of Law
Faculty of Law

Queen’s Law professor makes it easier to interpret statutes

(July 10, 2017)

Professor Nancy McCormack
Professor Nancy McCormack

Statutory interpretation, according to a recent study, is the subject matter of three of the four most cited books at the Supreme Court of Canada. While that should say something about the importance of the subject, there’s relatively little published on the topic, and what is available is often complex and impenetrable for most readers. Professor Nancy McCormack seeks to remedy that situation with a new edition of How to Understand Statutes and Regulations, which contains information critical to Canadians today. 

The new edition is long overdue. The first edition did contain Canadian content, explains McCormack, but the discussion and the examples were overwhelmingly British. Two of the three co-authors were, in fact, Australian. 

“The focus of the first book was on an interpretive approach known as the ‘plain meaning rule,’ once the preferred approach in British and Canadian law. It has long been superseded in Canadian courts by something called the ‘modern principle approach.’ So when Carswell asked me if I’d be interested in doing a second edition, I was enthusiastic.”

The original book, How to Understand Statutes and Bylaws, was published 21 years ago and was well regarded for its readability. The second edition, like its predecessor, provides a clear and comprehensible overview of how legislation comes into being, how it is constructed, and how the courts come to their conclusions on what the language and components of various types of legislation mean.

“For hundreds of years – in fact, the earliest case I cite in this new edition was decided in the early 1500s – courts have been struggling with the challenges of understanding legislation, and what principles they ought to observe in the process of interpretation,” McCormack says. “Over the centuries, they’ve put into place a set of rules, many of which are still observed today.” 

The book discusses these ancient and current rules, which appear in Canadian case law. “The result is a thoroughly revised and significantly expanded edition,” she adds, “which I hope, nevertheless, remains faithful to the first edition’s qualities of clarity and readability.”

By Anthony Pugh