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INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES: STRICT CONSTRUCTION OF PENAL STATUTES

By- Parvani Marwah

What actually is the meaning of strict construction of statutes? This is a separate term under the subject of “construction of statutes” and the word “strict” itself means reading out or understanding or interpreting the statute in its literal meaning and no or extremely narrow space for any different interpretation if so possible. So by this definition we can conclude that this terminology means that interpreting exactly by the rules and literally as written in the statute. Judges are often called upon to make a construction or interpretation of an unclear term in cases that involve a dispute over the term’s legal significance. Strict construction occurs when ambiguous language is given its exact and technical meaning and no other equitable consideration or reasonable implications are made.


A judge may make a construction only if the language is ambiguous or unclear. If the language is plain and clear, a judge must only apply the PLAIN MEANING of the language and cannot consider otherwise which can change the meaning altogether. If however, the judge finds that the words produce absurdity, ambiguity, or literalness never intended, the plain meaning does not apply and a construction may be made. Going by the definitions as explained above, this type of Construction is also called “Conservative Construction” the term being self explanatory already.


Strict construction of penal statutes:

The word penal statue means the statute book which lays down the provisions for punishment for various illegal acts that are committed by individuals of the society. In the Indian context it may be the Indian Penal Code or any other Special Statute that has been enforced for that purpose respectively.

While constructing a provision in a penal statute if there appears to be a reasonable doubt or ambiguity, it shall be resolved in favour of the person who would be liable to the penalty. In normal words this means that when there exist any kind of doubt or conflict between two provisions basically in understanding or interpreting and basing the decision upon the same, then the benefit of doubt shall go to the person accused of any charge.


If a penal provision reasonably be so interpreted as to avoid the punishment, it must be so constructed. This basically means that because of any confusion or ambiguity between provisions, as mentioned previously, the accused shall be released or acquitted for the same reason rather than holding him guilty. Therefore for any irrationality or doubt between statutes or wordings the construction shall be such that the punishment is set aside or avoided completely, however serious the charge may be, upon the accused. The guilt needs to be established beyond reasonable doubt or it shall be visible prime facie.

In other words, if there are two reasonable constructions of a penal provision, the more lenient should be given effect to, without any doubt or discussions.

As per the general and specific rule of strict construction of penal provisions, punishment can be meted out to a person only if the plain words of the penal provision are able to bring that person under its purview. No extension of meaning of the words is permissible. Unless the words of a statute clearly made an act criminal, it shall not be constructed as criminal in any sense or ways. So this means that, Court will inflict punishment on a person only when the circumstances of the case unambiguously fall under the letter of law.


When certain procedural requirements have been laid down by a statute to be completed in a statute dealing with punishments, the Court is duty bound to see that all these requirements have been complied with before sentencing the accused and if at any time any kind of ambiguity is established from the side of the Court, then the entire benefit shall lie with the accused even up to the extent of acquitting him on some technical grounds.


In criminal cases there can be no presumption that a crime has been constructively committed. If there is a reasonable interpretation by which a penalty can be avoided, that interpretation has got to be accepted.


Where a particular provision can be interpreted by the Court in various ways that particular interpretation must be avoided which causes hardship or injustice. So the sole purpose of this rule of strict construction rounds up to being fair and protecting the rights of the person in question. An accused can always argue that even though his conduct falls within the express language of the statute the same is against its spirit.



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