Dictionaries (again)

Will v Brighton [2020] NSWCA 355

This case on the meaning of ‘pest animals’11 exposes a difference of view about use of dictionaries12.  Bell JA (at [52]) said ‘care must be taken not to place too heavy reliance’ on them.  Dictionaries provide no guidance on context and are ‘rarely determinative’.  She would not fully ignore them, however, as they may help to identify the ‘range of possible meanings’.

Basten JA stressed their general unhelpfulness13, saying that sentences (not words) are the building blocks of communication14.  Dictionaries don’t define words with precision; they reflect common usage.  iTip – while refusal to look at dictionaries can invite risk15, mechanical reliance on them is a clear no-no.

This principle is from Episode 69 of interpretation NOW!


11 s 530(2) Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) ‘extermination of pest animals’ defence.

12 Provincial (1991) 25 NSWLR 541, House [2000] NSWCA 44 (at [25-29]).

13 cf Basten & Terrell (2020) 94 ALJ 825 on US practice & ‘Webster CJ’.

14 2 Elizabeth [2014] NSWCA 409 (at [82]), El-Haddad [2015] NSWCCA 10.

15 Bell JA (at [55]), Herzfeld & Prince (at [2.140]), cf Pearce 9th ed (at [3.33]).