At the first instance, the meaning of a statute must be ascertained from the language in which it is framed. The role of judges in the construction of a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature in passing the statute to begin with. To give effect to the legislative intent, the statute must be interpreted according to the ordinary meaning of the language used in the statute (California State Restaurant Assoc. v. Witlow (1976) 129 Cal. Rptr. 824, 58 CA.3d 340).
Thus, if the plain meaning of the statute may be ascertained from the language of the statute, then judges can easily derive the legislative intent behind the statute. When the legislative intent is apparent from the language of the statute, judges have the duty to apply the law on its face, without resorting to case law to determine the intent and purpose of the statute.
However, there are instances when judges may rely on case law to determine legislative intent. The first instance is when there is doubt as to the intent of the legislature behind the statute, such as when the statute is ambiguous or when the intent cannot be ascertained from the language of the statute. In such cases, judges may rely on extrinsic aids, such as case law, to interpret a statute. A second instance when judges may rely on case law to determine the intent and purpose of a statute is when strict adherence to the letter or plain meaning of the statute would result in an absurd interpretation of the legislative intent.
Reference to case law in the two instances mentioned would help a judge to refer to previous interpretation and clarifications of legal provisions. Case law also provides precedents on how laws are to be understood based on how prior cases have been decided (Wikipedia, 2006, para. 4). Case law decisions interpreting statutes will allow judges to apply such precedents and interpretations on future cases.
California State Restaurant Assoc. v. Witlow (1976) 129 Cal. Rptr. 824, 58 CA.3d 340
Case Law. (2006). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 5, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Case_law