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Federal Register of Legislation

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Some things to consider when reading legislation

When does a new law take effect (commence)?

Not all provisions (parts) of a new law will necessarily commence or take effect at the same time. Details of when a law commences is usually found in the text of the law, under a heading such as Commencement.

If commencement information for a legislative or notifiable instrument made on or after 1 January 2005 is not detailed in the instrument, it is taken to have commenced on the day after registration on the Register under section 12 of the Legislation Act 2003 (the LA).

While not common, Acts can take effect retrospectively, before they are made or registered on the Register. Legislative instruments and notifiable instruments can also take effect retrospectively, except to the extent that the retrospective application would disadvantage a person (other than the Commonwealth) or impose liabilities on the person in respect of things done before registration (subsection 12(2) of the LA).

Which version of an amended law should I use?

As the law changes, compilations of the law as amended are published on the Register and these are listed on each law's series page with details of start and end dates. These dates should be used as a guide to decide which compilation covers the desired point in time or period of interest.

The notes at the end of the compilation will list the commencement dates for amendments, and provide additional information to work out what the law was on a particular date.

Where are key words and phrases defined?

Many of the words and phrases used in legislation have specific meanings within the law. These key words and phrases are normally identified under a heading such as Definitions, Interpretation or Dictionary or in other parts of the document.

When reading legislation made under an Act of Parliament (such as most regulations and rules), it may be necessary also to refer to the relevant Act. A word or phrase that has a specific meaning under an Act has the same meaning in any laws made under that Act unless stated otherwise. This principle is set out in section 13 of the LA.

It may also be necessary to refer to Acts Interpretation Act 1901 which sets out the meaning of commonly used words and phrases such as Minister and Department.

Why is the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 important?

The Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (AIA) is an interpretation Act of the Parliament of Australia which establishes rules for the interpretation of Australian Government Acts and other legislation. The Act applies only to Australian Government legislation, with each State and the self-governing territory having its own interpretation legislation. For example it sets out how distances are measured and time is calculated for the purposes of an Act and other legislation. It also allows courts to interpret legislation using 'extrinsic' material such as:

  • relevant reports made to Parliament before the legislation was made
  • any treaties or international agreements referred to in the legislation, and
  • explanatory material such as explanatory memoranda and the second reading speech made by the Minister for the Bill.

The AIA is often described as a law of general application. Other laws of general application deal with criminal offences, civil penalties and other matters.

What are the rules around criminal offences and civil penalties?

The Crimes Act 1914 and the Criminal Code Act 1995 set out the rules that apply to criminal offences and civil penalties (financial penalties) unless stated otherwise. They cover:

  • what are the elements of an offence
  • how investigations are carried out and in particular, what is a valid use of search and seizure powers, detention powers and forensic procedures
  • what the prosecution must prove about the actions and thinking of the accused
  • what defences the accused may use, and
  • how people convicted of criminal offences should be sentenced, administered and released.

What other laws of general application exist?

Other laws of general application that may aid in the interpretation of the law include those related to rights to:

Rights in relation to privacy and confidentiality are governed by the Privacy Act 1988. It outlines how agencies collect, store and use personal information. Similar restrictions apply to the use of commercial information, although there is a certain amount of mandatory government reporting around matters such as procurement.

For advice and assistance with interpreting legislation contact the administering agency or seek independent legal advice.

Understanding legislation