The Reality and Indispensability of Legislative Intention

30 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2014

See all articles by Richard Ekins

Richard Ekins

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Jeffrey Denys Goldsworthy

Monash University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2013


Some members of the High Court have recently challenged the longstanding, fundamental principle that the primary object of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the legislature’s intention. They have described legislative intention as a ‘fiction’ that is, in reality, merely a by-product of the judicial interpretation of statutes. We acknowledge that there are good reasons for scepticism about some accounts of legislative intention, and for concern about the use of legislative history to reveal the subjective intentions of individual legislators. Nevertheless, we contend that radical scepticism about legislative intention is fundamentally misconceived, because it is inconsistent with the constitutional allocation of lawmaking authority to legislatures, reflected in orthodox principles of statutory interpretation, and with intelligible application of those principles in practice. We show how legislatures are complex purposive institutions, which form and act on intentions that arise from but are not reducible to the intentions of individual legislators. We also provide an account of a legislature’s ‘objective’ intentions, which are and should be the object of interpretation, and demonstrate that no other account either makes sense or provides a plausible rationale for its being the focus of statutory interpretation.

Keywords: legislative intention; statutory interpretation

Suggested Citation

Ekins, Richard and Goldsworthy, Jeffrey Denys, The Reality and Indispensability of Legislative Intention (2013). (2014) 36 Sydney Law Review 39; Monash University Faculty of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013/45. Available at SSRN:

Richard Ekins

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

St Giles
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3JP
United Kingdom


Jeffrey Denys Goldsworthy (Contact Author)

Monash University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Wellington Road
Clayton, Victoria 3800

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