Focus on context

Edelman J stresses the importance of context, saying that trying to understand speech without context is like trying ‘to understand the meaning of a painting before the paint is applied to the canvas’4.  But only in the last 50 years have extrinsic materials been seen as part of that context for interpretation purposes. 

Edelman J referred to the principle that the words of a minister cannot be substituted for the clear text of the law5.  He said, however, that the ‘modern approach’ at common law is not so constrained ‘even if its spirit has not always been respected’.  Context in the ‘widest sense’ must be consulted from the beginning, and even apparently plain words sometimes ‘may wear a very different appearance’6.  But extrinsic materials are only ever ‘part of the context to be considered’.

This principle is from Episode 106 of interpretation NOW!


4 cf Episode 97 editorial ‘get the picture’.

5 [109], Ex parte Beane (1987) 162 CLR 514 (518) quoted.

6 [110], CIC Insurance (1997) 187 CLR 384 (408) quoted.