I am pleased to introduce the Interpretation Bill 2000 in the Seanad and to outline its purpose and content. Most Acts and statutory instruments contain definition or interpretation provisions. They are there to make the legislation concerned more coherent by reducing the need for repetition. They also allow legislation to be shorter and improve clarity. Some interpretation matters arise time and again in legislation.
Due to their general application, these have from time to time been gathered together and included in an interpretation Act, which was then applied to all subsequent Acts and statutory instruments. In addition, general rules for interpretation of legislation have been developed by the courts over the years and continue to be developed. They form the part of the law that is called judge-made law or the common law. These general rules have often been given statutory effect, sometimes with improved clarity, in interpretation Acts.
Most jurisdictions have some form of general interpretation enactment that applies to its written laws. These general interpretation enactments provide a means of setting out rules that govern how the provisions of written law are to be construed and include defined terms that are commonly used.
The first general interpretation Act was the Interpretation Act 1889. Its purpose was twofold: to simplify the reading of statute law by deleting from each statute and statutory instrument standard definitions and phrases and to improve the clarity of legislation by giving statutory effect to certain standard principles of statutory interpretation developed by the courts. These remain the key purposes of any interpretation Act. Apart from minor amending Acts, major interpretation Acts were enacted in 1889, 1923 and 1937.
The Bill proposes to repeal and replace all the former interpretation Acts except the Interpretation (Amendment) Act 1997. The 1997 Act deals with the enactment of statutes that abolish common law offences and is being left as a standalone piece of legislation as it is not relevant to the interpretation of most Acts.
The last major interpretation Act was enacted in 1937. The fact that it has stood the test of time is indicative of its success. However, a new interpretation Act is necessary to deal with changing circumstances, including constitutional and statutory developments since 1937. It is also necessary for four other reasons: to provide new definitions to terms frequently used nowadays in statutes and statutory instruments; to consolidate provisions that have been added by interpretation amendment Acts since 1937; to modernise the language used in the interpretation Act; and to take account of developments in statutory interpretation by the courts.
The Bill further simplifies the matter for those who have recourse to the interpretation Act. The practice of having to examine one of three sets of interpretation Acts, depending on the date of passing of the Act to be interpreted, will not be necessary in most cases. Due to the proposed repeal of all previous interpretation Acts relating to statute law, the new definitions, which are set out in the second part of the Schedule to the Bill, will apply only to Acts and statutory instruments made after the legislation is enacted and comes into operation. Spent and obsolete provisions in the earlier interpretation Acts, including definitions of matters that no longer frequently occur in legislation, are not being re-enacted in the Bill.
However, the Bill also contains safeguard provisions to preserve the effect of obsolete definitions that have been omitted from the new Act. The safeguard provisions also prevent the application of a reworded definition if it causes legal anomalies or absurdities when being applied to an existing Act or statutory instrument.
Apart from the standard Preliminary and General Part, Part 1, the Bill is divided into five other parts. Part 2 is new and includes miscellaneous rules to assist in interpreting enactments. Part 3, dealing with citation, operation and commencement of enactments, reflects the current law but clarifies a number of matters in that law. Part 4 and the Schedule deal with the meaning and construction of words and expressions. Again it reflects the current law but incorporates a large number of new matters and omits obsolete definitions. Part 5, powers and duties, and Part 6, amendment of enactments, in general reflect the existing law but in more modern language.
In July 2000, shortly before this Bill was published, the Law Reform Commission published its consultation paper, Statutory Drafting and Interpretation: Plain Language and the Law. In December 2000, the Law Reform Commission published its report on that matter. In the context of both the consultation paper and the report, discussions took place between the commission and the Attorney General's office, including the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government. As was indicated in the Dáil on 26 June 2001 by the then Government Chief Whip, "aspects of the report will be reflected at Committee Stage of the Interpretation Bill". Accordingly, a series of amendments was moved on Committee and Report Stages of the Bill in the Dáil to take account of some of the issues arising from the Law Reform Commission's report as well as a number of other issues.
I wish to indicate to the House that I propose moving a number of further technical amendments to the Bill, the most obvious of which is that a new commencement provision will be provided for in section 1 of the Bill. It is proposed that this will be six months after the passing of the Act.
An interpretation Act is an invaluable tool for those who draft, use or interpret our laws. It helps by eliminating the need for standard interpretation provisions and definitions to be set out extensively in every new Act and statutory instrument which effectively would clutter up the Statute Book. The absence of general principles of interpretation from each individual Act and statutory instrument allows our laws to be read more easily. It also ensures a coherence of interpretation across the Statute Book that would not otherwise be there. Those who draft, regularly read or interpret our laws can do so with more precision and confidence when the basic rules and definitions of interpretation are of general application, are clearly set out in an interpretation Act and are well known and understood. In summary, although the Bill is of a technical nature and of interest primarily to the legal community, it is very important. It will effect a much-needed modernisation and simplification of the language of the rules and definitions found in the former Interpretation Acts and add new rules and definitions. This will have a positive knock-on effect on the drafting and interpretation of our legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.