How to Read A Law or Statute

One of the biggest mistakes someone pro se (or someone representing themselves) can make is misreading a law or statute.

Some statutes or laws are written with language that is easy to understand. Unfortunately, those are few and far between.  Most statutes are very difficult to understand. Many statutes cross-reference other statues which can make it very difficult to understand their meaning.  Here are some rules to use when interpreting a statute.

  • Read the statute through thoroughly to get the ‘big picture’ then reread it again. 
  • Do not skip any sections.  Read each section carefully and methodically.
  • Look for the words “may” and “shall”. “May” means you are allowed to do it; “shall” means you are required to do it.
  • Look for the words “and” and “or”.  “And” means all elements of a series are required; “or” means that only one of the elements is required.
  • Do not skip words you do not understand.  Look them up.  Definitions of legal terms can be found in the free ebook titled The Guerrilla Guide to Lawsuits: A Beginner’s Guide to the Legal System.
  • Look up and read all cross-references to other statues or sections.
  • Make sure the statute is up to date.  Statutes can be repealed or amended. Check your state or federal website for up to day information.

‚ÄčIn addition the following terms are used to change the scope of the statute:

Terms Function


These terms usually signify an exception
Subject to…
Within the meaning of
For the purposes of
These terms may limit the scope of the statute, or may indicate that a certain part of the statute is controlled or limited by anther section or statute
Provided that…
These terms indicate that for one part of a statute to take effect, a requirement must be satisfied
Notwithstanding Literally, “In spite of,” this term usually signifies that a certain term or provision is not controlled or limited by other parts of the statute, or by other statutes
These terms commonly limit the class of objects that are either included in or excluded from the statute


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