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Two-Step Statutory Interpretation

Step One-Listing the Elements
Step Two: Written Analysis

Many times, on legal essay scenarios, students are asked to interpret and apply one or several statutes to a set of facts provided. Typically, this is a very intimidating process for students to undertake. With a little practice, it's actually not all that difficult particularly if you use the following two-step process in doing so.

Step One: Listing the Elements

The first part of the process is breaking down a statute by its separable elements. Statutory elements are the key parts of a statute that must be satisfied in order to logically conclude the statute has been violated. Let's use the following sample Robbery statute in this lesson:

Robbery-Taking property of another, except a motor vehicle, from another or the presence of another through force or the threat of force.

Seems relatively simple but there are several elements included in just this short statute. Equally important for effective interpretation are the statutory terms and connectors, which are what separate the elements of a statute. In paying special attention to these two part of the statute while reading it, one can easily highlight the elements and terms and connectors as follows:

Robbery-Taking property of another, except a motor vehicle, from another or the presence of another through the threat of force or the use of force.

Outlined another way:

  1. Taking property of another, except a motor vehicle
  2. From another, or
  3. Presence of another
  4. Through threat of force, or
  5. Use of force.

Having the elements separated makes it whole lot easier, particularly in a stressful testing environment, to apply the facts presented to the elements of the statute and begin to formulate logical conclusions. Now you are ready to commence step two-written analysis.

Step Two: Written Analysis

This is where it so often goes wrong for a student. I've seen countless students perfectly identify the elements of a statute only to see their application of the elements to a set of facts go up in flames. This problem typically boils down to a lack of organization and practice. Written analysis is not something learned overnight!

One of the most well established methods taught for statutory analysis is the IRAC method. Here's how it works:

Issue-What is the problem presented? Have an introductory sentence or two that states the issue that you will be discussing in your response.

  • Example: The issue presented in this case is whether or not the Defendant, John Doe, can be found guilty of Robbery.

Rule-What is the law/statute that is provided to you? State the rule of law that governs the particular issue in the factual scenario presented.

  • Example: Robbery requires the taking of property, except a motor vehicle, from another or presence of another through force or the threat of force.

Analysis-How does the statute impact or effect the client's case? Explain in detail how the statutory language determine the outcome given the specific facts presented. This is the most important part of the essay response and one where you must outline your thoughts in detail prior to writing (see our other lessons/outlines on writing effective legal essays). Suppose the facts presented in a scenario on a test indicate the following: John Doe waits for the clerk to turn the other way and when the clerk does so he opens the drawer and steals money inside of it.

  • Example:  (Just for illustrative purposes in a real essay response a bit more detail in the analysis would be warranted)  

In the facts presented, the Defendant, John Doe, took money from the clerk's drawer while he was looking the other way. Since John Doe took money, it seems likely that he took the property, other than a motor vehicle, of another thereby satisfying the first part of the statute.  

However, since the money was taken from the drawer and not the clerk himself, a court would likely conclude that the money in this scenario was not taken "from another." Interestingly, the statute also states that the taking property from the presence of another can equally satisfy it. Accordingly, one must analyze whether this taking took place within the presence of another i.e. the clerk. The facts presented do not indicate specifically how close the clerk was during the taking.  Rather, they only indicate that the clerk was looking the other way. As such, it's not possible to definitively determine whether or not such a taking of property would be classified to have taken place "within the presence of another."  

While the presence of the person element might be difficult to draw a conclusion on based on the facts, the other elements of the statue regarding the use of "force" or the "threat of force" were clearly not satisfied in the facts presented. More specifically, there are no facts that indicate that the Defendant, John Doe, used any force to open the drawer where the money was located. He didn't pry the drawer open or break a lock to gain access to it.  Rather, the facts indicated he simply opened it.  It is unlikely a court would conclude opening an unlocked drawer would constitute "force" for purposes of the Robbery statute.  Additionally, the facts do not indicate that John Doe threatened any force on the clerk or anyone else in the vicinity in order to succeed in taking the money from the drawer.

Conclusion: What your answer to the most likely result will be. Use a few sentences to conclude the issue you are analyzing and conclude the answer or move onto the next issue. Do not leave the reader wondering what the answer is.

  • Example: Therefore, while the Defendant, John Doe, did take property arguably within the presence of another, he did not do so through force or threatening the use of force. As such, John Doe should be found not guilty of Robbery.

Final Point: Statutory interpretation is a skill set that takes a long time to develop. It takes lots of practice and patience. The most effective way to improve your interpretation and analysis skills is to take sample statutes and practice this two-step process over and over again. You will find you efficiency at finding the key elements and subsequently analyzing them based on a set of facts presented improve significantly!

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