Don’t Forget the Interpretation Act

Although most acts have a definitions section, usually at the beginning of the act, it is logistically impossible for an act to define all the words and terms it uses. If you are trying to find the meaning of a term that isn’t defined in an act, check that jurisdiction’s Interpretation Act. Definitions of terms that are used by multiple acts are quite often found in this act. For example, terms defined in the federal Interpretation Act include “herein”, “holiday” and “oath”. You will find Interpretation Acts in federal and all provincial legislation.

Interpretation acts are also useful when it comes to statutory interpretation. For example section 11 of the federal Interpretation Act distinguishes between the meaning of “shall” and the meaning of “may”.


  1. And don’t forget that in Ontario it’s now called The Legislation Act. Oh, and I hear there’s a great new annotated Federal Interpretation Act – 😉

  2. A way to conceive an Interpretation Act is with two propositions:
    1.It contains a standard batch of provisions about the operation of statutes and the meaning of common words.
    2.It becomes part of every other Act. It is as if the Interpretation Act is stapled to each statute.

  3. Section 38(b) of the Interpretation Act 1987 of New South Wales contains the following provision: ‘In the measurement of any distance: (b) for the purposes of any Act passed after the commencement of this Act, or any instrument made under such an Act, the distance shall be measured in a straight line on a horizontal plane.’ The New South Wales Flat Earth Society seize on this as justification for their position.

  4. The ‘maxims of jurisprudence’ of the California Civil Code contain some interpretive gems, including:

    3546. Things happen according to the ordinary course of nature and
    the ordinary habits of life.

    3547. A thing continues to exist as long as is usual with things of
    that nature.

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