Read this article on ‘Restrictive and Beneficial Construction of Penal Statutes’ by Simran Kang for an effective understanding of Interpretation of Statutes. Restrictive Construction of Penal Statutes It’s possible for a statute to be both a punishment and a preventative measure. The rule of strict construction may be applied in a limited sense to provisions that are approved… Read More »

Read this article on ‘Restrictive and Beneficial Construction of Penal Statutes’ by Simran Kang for an effective understanding of Interpretation of Statutes. Restrictive Construction of Penal Statutes It’s possible for a statute to be both a punishment and a preventative measure. The rule of strict construction may be applied in a limited sense to provisions that are approved on penalty of criminal punishment. As a matter of fact, it may be counterbalanced by the fact that...

Read this article on ‘Restrictive and Beneficial Construction of Penal Statutes’ by Simran Kang for an effective understanding of Interpretation of Statutes.

Restrictive Construction of Penal Statutes

It’s possible for a statute to be both a punishment and a preventative measure. The rule of strict construction may be applied in a limited sense to provisions that are approved on penalty of criminal punishment. As a matter of fact, it may be counterbalanced by the fact that a violation of such a clause can result in penalties.[1]

A court’s “interpretation” is defined by Salmond as “a process by which it searches authoritative forms of expression for the meaning of the Legislature’s”. The courts’ approach to interpreting criminal statutes has evolved over time. There was a time when it was thought that a criminal statute had to be interpreted in the defendant’s favour. The ebb and flow of history have altered the interpretation of criminal statutes in contradictory ways.[2]

Because judges are bound by the presumption that legislators are perfect individuals who never make mistakes, they must proceed with caution.[3] In cases where there is no ambiguity in the language of the statute, neither the Law Commission’s recommendations nor the aims and objectives set out in its Statement of Objects and Reasons can be used to influence its natural grammatical meaning.[4]

The penal law is considered to be based on a concern for individual rights and the simple idea that legislatures, not judicial courts, have jurisdiction to define and punish crimes.[5] A reasonable expectation is that legislative intent will be expressed in penal statutes in a clear and understandable manner.

In Maxwell’s view, the four ways in which the rigid interpretation of penal statutes present themselves are as follows:

  1. Unless explicitly stated in the statute, no activity will be considered criminal unless it is explicitly stated in the statute itself. As long as a specific penalty is indicated, an act or omission does not have to be considered an offence.
  2. Strict construction is required when interpreting the sentences defining an offence. Also, if there’s any room for scepticism or uncertainty, the prosecution will win. The penalty can be avoided if a reasonable interpretation is used. The court must choose the more lenient interpretation if there are two possible ones. When imposing a penalty, a judge must make sure that it is justified and consistent with the enactment’s plain language.
  3. In order for a punishment to be enforced, the circumstances of the case must be explicitly defined in the enactment in question.
  4. Similar rules apply to statutes relating to the enforcement of penalties, such as those governing jurisdiction and process.

Lord Justice James, arguing for the Privy Council, explained the norm that all penal statutes must be strictly read as follows[6]:

A penal statute’s strict construction means that it should be interpreted narrowly in favour of the person being prosecuted. In the event of an ambiguity in the provision’s language, this rule implies that the subject’s freedom is preferred.

Although it is generally accepted that a construction more favourable to the accused should be favoured when terms in a criminal legislation are fairly capable of two interpretations, it is important to consider the context in which they were employed when applying this concept.

In the case of M.U. Joshi v. M.V. Shimpi,[7] Section 16 of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, was used to convict the appellant of selling butter that had been adulterated. He argued that it was not buttered under the Act’s definition of butter since he was selling curd-based butter, not milk-based butter. The Act’s phrase “butter” had to be interpreted strongly in favour of the accused because it is a criminal act.

The Supreme Court ruled in State of Andhra Pradesh v. Nagoti Venkatarma,[8] that strict construction must be followed in interpreting penal legislation and that the accused must be given the benefit of the doubt if there is any legitimate question.

If a manufacturer is expected to report accurate and truthful information about his business operations under the Essential Supplies Act 1946, then delivery is defined to mean actual physical delivery. Due to a dispute with the buyer of several bales, the appellant requested that his agent store the bales in a godown until the dispute had been resolved.

Those bales were recorded in the appellant’s return book as delivered. The High Court found the appellant guilty of failing to deliver the baby in a bodily manner. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the accused’s reading of criminal legislation should be upheld when two plausible meanings exist. As long as the items were delivered to the agent, the Act’s criteria had been met, according to the ruling.[9]

In this regard, Chinubhai v. State of Bombay[10] is significant. Several industrial workers were killed when they inhaled deadly gas while attempting to stop a machine from leaking while working in a pit on the grounds. No one at a workplace is allowed to enter any restricted space where toxic vapours are likely to be present, according to section 3 of the Factories Act, which the employer allegedly breached.

This law does not place an absolute duty on employers to prohibit their employees from going into the restricted area, according to the Supreme Court. The fact that certain employees were present in the limited location did not establish that the employer allowed them to go there, the report continued. To convict the accused, the prosecution must first show that the workers were authorised entry into the facility.

Beneficial Construction of Penal Statutes

When interpreting a text, the golden rule is to stick to the plain meaning of the words, unless doing so would lead to absurdity or inconsistency. Courts must choose the view that suppresses the harm and advances the cure when the words in question are ambiguous and reasonably capable of more than one meaning.[11]

A single instance of suffering or injustice has no significance. To diverge from general construction is only possible when natural construction results in general suffering or inequity. It is important to remember that the context and the text itself are important considerations when interpreting a text. They serve as the cornerstones of interpretation. “If the text is the texture, the context provides the colour,” as the saying goes.[12]

Article 41 of the Indian Constitution mandates that the state must make adequate provisions to ensure the right to labour and other basic human rights, within the limits of the country’s economic capabilities and growth. Despite this, courts have declined to grant a mandamus requiring the Union of India to provide the petitioner with food, clothing, and a place to live because his plight necessitates political action.[13]

According to the Supreme Court, statutory provisions should be interpreted in accordance with their language’s usual, grammatical, and natural sense. An appeal to Parliament, not this court, should be made in the event of electoral injustice that disadvantages the less wealthy candidates.[14] Parliament, not judges, has the authority to enact and amend the law.

When rigid interpretation resulted in an unjust situation, judges utilised their judicial sense to fix it. However, justice is above all has been the main theme in the bulk of court statements.

Even though multiple people were injured as a result of a single transaction, the fact that more than one claim or cause of action can be brought against the party who caused the injuries is more important than whether or not there was a single transaction that caused the injuries to numerous people. There has been a mishap if more than one person is hurt while carrying out a transaction.

As a result, we believe it’s reasonable to declare the term “accident” to refer to the various claimants, each of whom has the right to submit a separate claim for any injury or damage they have experienced, rather than from the perspective of the insurer.[15]

The Supreme Court of India has made the following observations on the drafting of penal statutes:

A well-established rule of construction of penal statutes states that if two plausible interpretations can be given to a penal provision, the Court should prefer the one that exempts the subject from punishment rather than the one that imposes punishment.[16] In future situations, this position has been adopted.[17]

In a Taxing Act, it is suggested that one should only focus on what is explicitly stated. Any sort of intention is out of the question. A tax has no place in a fair society. The existence of a tax is not assumed. There is nothing to be taken for granted and nothing to be inferred. Only a fair assessment of the words used is possible. The view that is favourable to the assessee must be taken when construing the provisions of a taxing act.[18]

Justice is considered to be aided by the rules of process. Procedures should not be utilised as traps to catch litigants off guard; rather, they should be interpreted in a way that promotes justice.[19] Dismissal for default can be set aside when a tribunal has the competence to dismiss in default.

Section 5 of the Limitation Act requires that “sufficient cause” be interpreted liberally in order to promote substantial justice.[20]

Rt. Hon’ble Lord Denning Master of the Roll 9- “When a statute comes up, it must be recognised that it is not within human powers to foresee the many sets of events that may arise, and, even if it were feasible to provide for them in language free from all ambiguity, it is impossible to do so.” Mathematics cannot be performed with the English language.

If Parliamentary legislation were written with supernatural foresight and clarity, it would save the judge a lot of time and effort. When a flaw is discovered, a Judge is left with no choice but to place the responsibility on the draughtsman. As part of the process of determining Parliament’s intent, he must not only look at the statute’s language but also the societal context in which it was passed and the problems it was intended to address.

He must then go beyond what is written in order to give the Legislature’s intent “force and life.” The question a judge should ask himself is: How would the Act’s creators have fixed this kink in the texture if they had encountered it themselves? As a result, he must follow their lead. Judges are prohibited from altering the fabric, but they can and should use an iron to remove any creases.[21]

The healing power of the rule of law has been proven time and time again, as new issues have emerged. When arguing that “law” in Art. 21 of the Constitution refers to a principle of natural justice analogous to “due process of law,” the Supreme Court rejected the argument in 1950. Soon after the emergency and elections in 1977, the 1950 interpretation was revised.

Justice P.N. Bhagwati, in his majority judgement, argued that procedures for depriving a person of his or her liberty must be just, fair and reasonable in order to have a fair chance of succeeding.[22]

As time went by, human rights were extended to jail inmates. A person’s constitutional freedom can only be taken away through procedures that are “just, just, and fair,” regardless of where they are held. For Justice Krishna Iyer, a constitutional instrumentality such as the Supreme

Court would be useless without its guns being put into action until the wrong was righted. Court and counsel collaborate to fashion are the final hour of justice. Cure the institutional pathalogy that creates wrongs and defies the right with relief in the individual case.[23]

It is undeniably true that the Indian Constitution does not protect the “right to education” as a basic right. The Supreme Court of India noted that Indian civilization recognises education as one of the basic tasks of human society and held that every person has a “right to education” under the Indian Constitution. The State has a duty to set up educational institutions so that citizens can exercise their right to education.[24]

In interpreting Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court of India decided that the right to life does not only involve the protection of one’s organs and faculties, but also the right to be treated with respect and dignity while one is alive.[25]

Those who are poor should be able to enjoy “life” provided by the Constitution because of the Preamble’s pledges and Directive Principles.[26]

Plato remarked in the distant past that knowledge without justice is not wisdom, but rather cunning. The goal of the rule of law has always been to bring justice to all.

But a few brilliant judges have been a little on the fence. It was in his farewell address that Mr. Desai noted “I have followed the notion that judges’ business is not merely to dispense justice but to administer law.” According to Honorable Judge Mr. A.N. Ray, courts should apply the rule of law and the judicial conscience while interpreting the Constitution and the law.

“Judicial justice can only be justice according to law,” said Justice M.H. Beg. When it comes to moral and legal fairness, it is more likely to be in agreement. If an ordinary law is shown to violate nebulous conceptions of democracy, justice-political-economic-social and freedom of opinion, then it cannot be deemed invalid.[27]

Changing the interpretation of the law is not permitted in any jurisdiction, and this is true. Though it may seem counterintuitive, if justice is to be a lasting monument, its basis must be based on a feeling of fairness.

Hon’ble Justice C.B. Agarwal‘s comments, “In other words, my approach has been emotional in the first instance to see what is just and then to see, how rationally the letter of law actually reflects the meaning which justice requires.”

The human mind debates whether or not strict logic should prevail or lose amid new disputes and new concerns. Recently, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to upholding the rule of law and the principle of justice, noting that “justice is virtue which transcends all barriers.”


[1] Anchal Chhallani, Interpretations of statues in India, Taxmann.

[2] Sevantilal Maneklal Seth v. Commissioner of Income Tax, 1968 2 SCJ 129.

[3] Thakur Madhok Singh v. Lieut Kames, 1942 Lahore 243.

[4] S.G. Roy Buty v. Maroti, 1975 BOM 244.

[5] M.N. Nambiar v. State of Kerala, 1963 SCR 724.

[6] London Railway Company v. Be&N eastern Berriman, 1946 ALL 255.

[7] 1961, SC 1494.

[8] 1996, SCC 409.

[9] Seksaria Cotton Mill Limited Company v. State of Bombay, 1954 SCA 299.

[10] AIR 1960.

[11] P.D. Kaushik, March 1996, Beneficial Construction.

[12] Reserve Bank of India v. Peerless General Finance and Investment Company Limited, 1987 SC 1023.

[13] Thomas Jacob v. Union of India, 1992 UPLEBC 15.

[14] Rananjay Singh v. Balj Nath Singh, 1954 SC 749.

[15] Motor Owner Association v. J.K. Modi, 1981 SC 2059.

[16] Tola Ram v. State of Bombay, 1954 SC 496.

[17] M.U. Joshi v. M.V. Shimpi, 1961, SC 1494.

[18] CIT, Punjab v. K.V. Trans Co. Pvt. Ltd., 1970 SCC 192.

[19] Munni Devi v. Hem Prakash, 1981 ALL CJ 25.

[20] Dhinamandu v. Jadumoni, 1954 SC 41.

[21] Seaford Court Estate Ltd. v. Asher, 1949 (2) KB 481.

[22] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, 1978 SCC 248.

[23] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admin., 1980 SCC 488.

[24] Miss Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, 1992 SC 1858.

[25] F.C. Mullin v. ADM Union Territory of Delhi, 1981 SCR 516.

[26] Miss Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, 1992 SC 1858.

[27] Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain, 1975 SC 2299.


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Updated On 2021-12-30T06:25:58+05:30
Simran Kang

Simran Kang

Symbiosis Law School, Pune

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