How to Read a Statute

Reading the law directly often leads to more confusion than answers. Statutes can be long and awkwardly worded. Many statutes reference other statutes within the text. Even if the language of the law seems relatively straightforward, caselaw can modify what the statute seems to be saying. Despite this, reading a statute can be valuable in some cases. This article will explain some basic tips about reading statutory text.

Doing Your Own Legal Research Is Difficult

First, it's important to note that there's a reason lawyers spend years at law school. The law is a complicated field, and trying to interpret the law on your own can lead to significant problems. Researching the law is not like researching step-by-step instructions on how to fix a leaky faucet. Statutes are not always clear, and even when they are, there can be cases, amendments, and other laws that could impact your situation. There could be different interpretations of the law by different courts. If you want to know whether something is legal, if you can file a lawsuit, or if you meet the requirements for a benefit set out in the law, please seek the help of a qualified attorney who can explain how courts apply the appropriate laws in your jurisdiction.

How To Read a Statute

  1. Keep it in context. Laws are created for a specific purpose. That is why legislatures sort laws by subject matter. That means you need to know the context of the law you are reading. What jurisdiction are you in? This is important to know because states have different laws for the same issue—and the federal government has different laws from states. Similarly: what part of the state or federal code are you in? For example, if you are wondering if a business partner committed fraud, there are both criminal and civil laws regarding fraud, and these laws are found in different parts of a legal code.
  2. Slow down and re-read. Statutes do not contain extraneous information. If it is in the text, it's there for a reason, and it means something. That means reading a statute is not like reading an article, or even a textbook. Usually, ever word—and even comma—matters; the meaning of any word in a statute can lead to litigation. Even commonly understood words used in everyday conversation can lead to lawsuits. This means it is important to ask how a word is used: is the word you are looking at used in its ordinary, everyday sense? Or is it a term of art used in a specific way? The first step to understanding any statute is to slow down and read every word carefully.
  3. Cross-references matter. If the statute you are reading cross-references another statute, you need to read that statute as well. The statute being cross-referenced could include an important exception to the law, as just one example. Cross-references in statutes are not like footnotes that add additional or related information. They are a part of the law you are reading.
  4. Read definitions. Laws usually contain a definitions section. These definitions apply to that particular law. A word used in a law code may have a specific meaning in context, and may not mean what you'd think from everyday language. Words may even have different meanings in different statutes, so it is important not to assume that reading one definition in a statute will apply across the board. A good tool are also legal dictionaries, which can give you a general sense of terms of art that are often used the same way in statutes and case law.
  5. Research legislative history. Lawmakers had a reason for passing the law. What is the goal of the statute? What behavior is it intended to encourage or discourage? Was it amended, and why? Notes that answer these questions are usually found in the legislative history that accompany statutes in the form of comments, footnotes, and amendments. Even though courts and judges have different opinions on how much this legislative history matters when interpreting statutes, successfully arguing about the meaning of a law requires knowledge of when and why it was passed and how it has changed from its original version.
  6. Some words are intentionally vague. What does "good faith" mean? How does a "reasonable person" act? If these (or similar) terms are included in the statute, then you need to look at caselaw from the appropriate jurisdiction to understand situations in which courts have determined that an individual acted "reasonably" or "in good faith," because courts will often decide exactly what these terms mean on a case-by-case basis.

Understanding the Basics of Statutory Interpretation

Statutory interpretation is an academic field unto itself. To understand a statute, you need to understand some of the basics. Courts use various principles (called "canons")to understand and interpret statutes so that they apply them accurately and consistently. Keep in mind, however, that not all judges apply these principles equally, and there remains disagreement on which canons or principles are most important. One example is the theory of "originalism", which holds that courts should interpret statutes to mean what the lawmakers intended at the time the law was passed. This is a hotly contested principle of statutory interpretation. Others, however, are more universally applied. These include:

  • Plain meaning: The plain meaning rule holds that when a statute is clear on its "face" (in other words, the language seems to mean one thing), the sole role of the courts is to enforce what that meaning is.
  • Terms of art: Sometimes legislatures will borrow established terms from case law. For example, if a statute references "negligence," it is probably not being used in its ordinary sense, but in the sense that courts developed over time for purposes of finding liability.
  • Ordinary and dictionary meanings: If a word is not a term of art, it should be interpreted in its ordinary sense. While it seems strange that courts would cite dictionaries, judges do so often when interpreting a law.
  • And/or: If the law has a list of requirements, the use of "and" and "or" is significant. If the statute reads "and," then it's generally presumed that all of the items in the list must be met. If instead "or" is used, then any single item on the list is enough.
  • "Mere surplusage": Courts generally do not discount words as extraneous. If it's in the statute, courts generally interpret it to mean something. One exception is an act's preamble, which generally starts with "whereas . . ."

Further Research

If you are learning about the law out of curiosity, to better follow the news, or trying to get the basics down, then read a variety of sources. Many lawyers will publish explanatory articles and blogs about legal matters (including FindLaw), which can help ensure you are on the right track.

Reading a statute, even if it seems straightforward, does not necessarily mean that you have a full picture of the law. While directly reading a statute is one of the first steps in legal research, it is by no means the only step. Be prepared to spend some time on the matter if you really want to understand a law.

Find Legal Help

If you are facing a legal issue or dispute, it is best to get the help of an attorney to ensure you have a complete understanding of the legal matter and how best to proceed. Going at it alone is a high-risk strategy that may lead to more problems and a higher cost than simply getting the help of a lawyer. You can find qualified attorneys in your area on findlaw.com.

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