13 December 2012

When is a railway siding considered an area?

This is one of a series of posts about Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner's Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. For similar posts, click here.

32. Ejusdem Generis canon. Where general words follow an enumeration of two or more things, they apply only to persons or things of the same general class specifically mentioned (ejusdem generis, Latin for "of the same kind," p. 199).

Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (see also here) provided that any person found in "any dwelling-house, warehouse, coach-house, stable or outhouse, or in any enclosed yard, garden or area" for unlawful purposes were to be considered "rogues and vagabonds." The question here was how to determine what was meant by the word "area" as it applied to railway sidings.

In yesterday's post, we learned that when a definition is not provided, the courts should provide the ordinary meaning, often by looking to dictionaries contemporary to the time the statute was written. Do we need to consult the dictionary here? More specifically, do we need to examine an early 19th century English dictionary?

It turns out that we don't have to (which is good for us; even contemporary definitions of area are so vague as to mean almost anywhere). By using the ordinary meaning of area, such as "a level piece of ground," or "a particular extent of space or surface or one serving a special function...as...a geographic region," we could extend this law to cover just about everywhere.

So how do we know when to pass by the ordinary meaning and find something different? The key here is the context in which area is used. In the context of "...any enclosed yard, garden or area," area is a general word that follows the enumeration of two things; area only applies to the things of the same class as enclosed yard or garden. Thus, ejusdem generis applies and the ordinary meaning of area is limited by the context of the words before it. Here, area was limited to the spaces in the immediate vicinity of yards and gardens. As a result, railway sidings were not areas in the context of the Vagrancy Act. Knott v. Blackburn (1944 K.B. 77).
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