Statutory Interpretation and Precedent in Hungary

By Pokol, Bela | East European Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Statutory Interpretation and Precedent in Hungary


Pokol, Bela, East European Quarterly


I. INTERPRETING STATUTES IN THE HIGH COURTS IN HUNGARY

Surveys conducted during the last decade reveal that there are at least ten ways of interpreting law under modern law systems for judges to use when deciding cases brought before them (Summers and Taruffo 1991: 464-465). These bases for interpretation are taken into consideration with different weight in various countries; there are also countries where certain modes of interpretation are completely unknown and others where almost all are used to some extent. The methods of interpretation are as follows:

1. Interpreting the legal text in view of the meaning of the words in everyday language;

2. Interpreting the legal text in view of the special/technical meaning of the words, provided that a given word or phrase has such a meaning either in addition to its everyday meaning or has no other than such a meaning;

3. Contextual interpretation means the type of interpretation of the legal text where the words of each provision are construed in compliance with the meaning attributed to them when fitted in the entirety of the law or a complete body of related laws;

4. Interpreting the legal text on the basis of law logistics maxims;

5. Interpreting the legal text through analogy;

6. Interpreting the legal text on the grounds of precedents set at the time of previously enforcing the given law;

7. Interpretation on the grounds of legal dogmas and doctrines;

8. Interpreting the legal text in the light of implied ethical values of law or certain branches of law;

9. Interpreting the legal text in the light of the aims of the given statute;

10. Interpreting the legal text on the grounds of the will of the legislator.

Which methods of interpreting law are used by the high courts in Hungary? The intent of this study is to give, at least on an experimental level, an answer to this question based on approximately 600 leading cases published in the Decisions of Courts (DC), the official publication of the decisions of the higher courts in Hungary. In selecting leading cases, a more or less equal number of cases from both criminal law and civil law have been included in this examination, taking the different features of law interpretation in the two fields into consideration, thus avoiding cases of appeals due to law interpretation debates regarding rules of the court. Only cases that contain substantive legal debates were included in the analysis. Also, in order to explore the changes in interpretation during the past decades, the 1988 issues (regarding the practice prevailing in 1977), and the 1998 and the first half of the 1999 issues (concerning the 1990's) of the Decisions of Courts have been examined. Thus, it has been possible to explore the differences between the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s every time on the basis of a hundred criminal law and civil law judgements. Furthermore, it should be noted that the leading cases issued in the Decisions of Courts constitute decisions of the Supreme Court as the court of second instance, or, due to protests on legal grounds (and recently, requests for revision) as the court of third instance; and they contain, as part of the description of the cases, a description of the law interpretation of the judgements made by the court of lower instance. Consequently, in addition to the Supreme Court, the county courts' practice of interpreting law has also been revealed in them.

Grammatical, word-by-word interpretation

This type of interpretation appears to be of key importance in the practice of the Hungarian high courts with regard to criminal and civil law judgements with the difference that in the latter, grammatical interpretation is often combined with legal dogma interpretation actually appearing embedded in that. The judges consider whether the action is perceived to be in the phase of either preparation or attempt or completion; whether it is an aggravated case pursuant to one type of the criminal code facts, or rather the technicality of a case that got stuck in the attempt phase pursuant to another type of facts; whether one of the perpetrators is an accomplice or an accessory; whether the intention in committing the action is deemed contingent or rather it may be inferred from the fact that direct intention is involved, etc.

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