Rules of Statutory Interpretation

If the interpretation of a particular statute becomes an issue in a case, the court must rely on rules of statutory interpretation or construction in deciding the law's meaning. This article discusses the main rules of statutory interpretation or construction.

Legislative Intent

The court's primary goal in interpreting a law is to determine the legislative intent behind the law. The controlling issue is the intent of the legislature, and the court is expected to choose the interpretation of the law that most clearly reflects the legislative intent in enacting the law.

Plain Meaning of the Law

When the plain or ordinary meaning of the language of a statute is clear, the court normally follows the law's plain meaning.

Ambiguous Law

A law is ambiguous if reasonable persons could come to different conclusions as to its meaning. The court considers the legislative history of the law in interpreting its meaning only if the language of the law is ambiguous. The court can also look at the purpose behind the law in resolving ambiguities.

Conflicting Laws

When two laws conflict with one another and one deals with the subject matter in a general way while the other deals with the subject matter in a specific way, the courts follow the more specific provision.

Common Words and Identical Words

Common words in a law are to be given their common and obvious meaning. Identical words used in different parts of the same law usually are held by the courts to have the same meaning.

In Pari Materia

In "pari materia" (like matter) is a doctrine that all laws on the same subject should be read together as one law.

Strict or Liberal Construction

The following types of laws normally are strictly or narrowly construed:

  • criminal laws;

  • laws that impose a duty or burden not recognized by common or non-statutory law;

  • laws that establish a right or benefit that was not recognized by common law; and

  • laws that affect personal or property rights.

Election laws and remedial statutes (laws relating to practice or procedure or laws that correct defects in earlier statutes) usually are liberally or broadly construed.

Prospective or Retrospective Operation

Laws that affect substantive rights are applied prospectively, meaning in the future. Laws that affect procedures and remedies are applied retrospectively, meaning to past events and currently as well as in the future.


As a general rule, if any part of a law is held unconstitutional, the remaining parts of the law remain in force if they can stand alone.

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