Interpretation of Statute means to understand the meaning of the statute by the
words in which it is expressed. It is the primary function of the court to
interpret the legislature when a dispute comes before it. It is imperative for
the court to find out the intention of the legislature in the language used by
the legislature in the statute.
However this interpretation cannot be at the
discretion of the court, but in accordance with the certain principles evolved
over time which are known as rules of interpretation. This interpretation is
aided by various factors such as short title, long title, headings, definition
clause, illustrations, schedules etc of a statute.
A statute can be interpreted in two ways:
- Liberal interpretation
- Strict Interpretation
The term "liberal interpretation" also known as beneficial or benevolent
legislation, refers to the duty of the court to determine the meaning of the
word and understand what the statute says by going beyond the letter of the
statute. Statutes are interpreted liberally to understand the spirit of the law
and uphold the objective of the statute.
On the other hand, "strict
interpretation" states that a statute must be interpreted literally, i.e the
words in which it is expressed, and should not go beyond the letter of the law.
Strict interpretation limits itself to the scope of the law. Under liberal
interpretation, rules of interpretation such as mischief rule, golden rule etc
are used to understand the mischief of the law and to interpret the law in such
a way that the essence of the law is upheld.
However, in the case of strict
interpretation, it only sticks to the literal rule where the law is interpreted
in the words it is expressed by taking into account the ordinary and natural
meaning of those words. The following research throws light on the concept of
strict interpretation of a penal statute and the analysis of the same with
respect to the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
Difference Between Interpretation And Construction
The words interpretation and construction have been often used interchangeably,
but there is a thin line of difference between them.
Salmond has defined interpretation as "that process by which the courts seek to
ascertain the meaning of the law through the medium of the authoritative forms
in which it is expressed". Thus it includes giving effect to the intention of
the legislature. In the technical sense, Interpretation means the art of finding
out the true sense of an enactment by giving the words their natural and
ordinary meaning. Thus it the finding of the meaning of the statute by giving
the natural and ordinary meaning to the words used in it.
Construction is used ancillary with interpretation but it is something more than
it. While interpretation stops at finding out the ordinary meaning of the word,
construction goes a step forward by drawing conclusions on the basis of the
interpretation. Thus construction is a step beyond interpretation but cannot be
performed without it.
Interpretation is identifying the semantic meaning of the text I.e what the law
is saying and the intention of the legislature whereas construction is the
application of such meaning to the set of facts and circumstances of a case by
going beyond the direct expression of the text in order to reach to conclusions.
Thus interpretation depicts the linguistic meaning of the text and construction
determines the legal effect of the text.
Strict Interpretation restricts the power of the court to the language of the
statute. Strict Interpretation requires the court to apply the text as it is
written, and no further once the meaning of the text has been asserted. If the
language is plain and clear and there is no scope for ambiguity a judge must
apply the plain meaning of the language and cannot consider other evidence that
would change the meaning.
If however the court finds that the word reduced
absurdity ambiguity or a defect in the language of the statute, the plain
meaning does not apply and a construction may be made. A provision is said to be
strictly interpreted when the language of the text is an ambiguous and given in
its exact and technical meaning no other equitable considerations or reasonable
implications can be made.
Any statute which imposes a penal liability on a person who is found to be
guilty of any offence according to the provision of the statute is said to be a
penal statute. Thus the essential ingredient is punishing certain acts or
wrongs. The word penal denotes some kind of punishment awarded to an individual
by the mandate of the state. Some instances of such statutes are the Indian
Penal Code,1860, Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, Prevention of Food
Adulteration Act,1954 etc.
The penalty for the disobedience of the law may be in
the form of fine, forfeiture of property, imprisonment and even death. Where
obedience to law is enforced not by an individual action but by a command of the
law in the form of punishment, the statute is penal. A penalty can be imposed
only when the letter of the law says so unambiguously and any doubt has to be
resolved in favour of the alleged offender.
Strict Interpretation Of Penal Statute
While constructing a provision in a penal statute if there appears to be a
reasonable doubt or ambiguity, it shall be resolves in favour of the person who
would be liable to penalty. If a penal provision rationally be interpreted in
such a way that punishment can be avoided, it must be construed in that way
However if a given provision is capable of two reasonable interpretation
of a penal provision, the one which is more lenient should be considered.
Punishment can be meted out to a person only if the plain word of the penal
provision without any extension of meaning have the ability to bring that person
under its purview. While interpreting the statute strictly the spirit of the
statute is not taken into consideration, hence a penalty cannot be imposed on
the basis that the object of a statute so desired.
According to Maxwell, the strict construction of Penal Statutes manifests itself
in following ways: 
- In the requirement of express language for the creation of an offence;
- In interpreting strictly words setting out the elements of an offence in requiring the fulfilment to the letter of statutory conditions precedent to the infliction of punishment;
- In insisting on the strict observance of technical provisions concerning criminal procedure and jurisdiction.
Unless and until the words given in a statute give a clear indication of the act
made criminal, it shall not be interpreted as criminal. It is the duty of the
court to inflict punishment on a person only when the circumstances of a case
unambiguously fall under the letter if the law. All the legislations which deal
with the jurisdiction and procedure with regards to imposition of penalties
should be interpreted and construed strictly.
It is the foremost duty of the
Court to see that all the procedural requirements given in a statute with
respect to punishments in a statute are duly complied with before sentencing the
accused. In case of any doubt in such cases, the benefit of doubt goes to the
accused. Such a benefit can go upto the extent of acquitting the accused on the
grounds of technicality of the statute.
Penal statutes follow the principle of prospective operation. Prospective
operation states that, 'If there is a reasonable interpretation by which a
penalty can be avoided, that interpretation should be accepted.' And in cases
where a provision can be reasonably interpreted in various ways, that specific
interpretation must be avoided which causes hardship or injustice.
the interpretation of it penal statute it must be carefully looked upon that
punishment or penalty could be imposed if and only if the conduct of he accused
falls clearly within the letter of the law.
An enactment entailing penal consequences does in no case permit violence with
the language used so as to bring it within the express words of the Act. Though
it is true that, a penal statute must never be so construed as to narrow down
its words to exclude such cases as would ordinarily be within its ambit.
Motibai v/s R. Prasad (1970)
It was stated that Court should not try to add new words on its own, while
interpreting a Penal statute. Courts are required to do Grammatical
Interpretation of Penal Statutes.
Spicer v/s Holt (1976)
The Court made it clear that if in a penal statute a loophole is found, it is
not for the judges to cure it, for it is dangerous to derogate from the
principle that a citizen has a right to claim that howsoever much his conduct
may seem to deserve punishment, he should not be convicted unless that the
conduct falls fairly within the definition of crime of which he is charged.
Prevention Of Corruption Act, 1988
India has been suffering from the malady of corruption since decades. Corruption
has been seen as a common practice between businessmen, politicians, supreme
leaders and even public servants. Corruption is seen as a major barrier in the
development of India, and it is imperative to fight this evil and restrict it
from hindering the progress of India. Initially the corruption in India was
dealt by the Indian Penal Code, 1860; in spite of that, it was seen that the
Code was inadequate in providing proper provisions for the offence of bribery
and corruption and a more efficient Act was needed to be enacted for the
emerging issue of corruption.
Later, The Criminal Law Ordinance, 1944; Central Vigilance Commission etc. were
established to keep the corruption within control and punish the offenders.
However, in the year 1988 the Prevention of Corruption Act was established,
consolidating all these acts and forming a more stringent and accurate law of
the prevention of corruption especially by Public Servants and punish anyone
violating the given provisions. The Act imposes the penal liability on the
public servants, however the ambit of the Act under certain provisions even
extends to the private individuals.
The Prevention of Corruption Act comes under the purview of a penal statute as
it provides for punishments for the violation of its provisions. The object is
- Punish the offenders guilty under this Act; and
- To have a deterring impact on potential wrongdoers and refrain them from
indulging in such acts.
Generally the offences committed under this Act are punishable with imprisonment
for a term of three to seven years which is awarded to low level offences as
given under Section 7 to Section 12 of the Act. Nonetheless, offences which are
of a higher degree are punishable under Section 14 of the Act with harsher
A person convicted under Section 14 of the act which is about a
habitual offender of offences referred under Section 8, 9 and 12 has to face
imprisonment for 5 years which can go up to 10 years in addition to the fine
payable as determined by the Court. Hence, it is determined that the Act is a
penal statute and thus according to the rules of interpretation, it must be
Analysis Of Strict Interpretation Of Prevention Of Corruption Act, 1988
Since the Act is a Penal Statute, the provisions of the Act that provide for
punishment must be strictly interpreted by taking into ambit only the letter of
the law and not the spirit of the law. Various Sections of the Act provide for
punishments according to the intensity of the offence and the post of the person
guilty of such offence. The strict interpretation of the provisions can be seen
with the help of few case law that exhibit how the Courts have interpreted the
Act in various instances by sticking to the language in which the Act is
expressed and not going beyond it. Few of such provisions are:
Criminal Misconduct - Section 13 (1) (d)
13. Criminal misconduct by a public servant:
Subhash Prabhat Sonavane V/S State Of Gujarat (2002)
- A public servant is said to commit the offence of criminal misconduct:
- If he:
- By corrupt or illegal means, obtains for himself or for any other person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage; or
- By abusing his position as a public servant, obtains for himself or for any other person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage; or
- While holding office as a public servant, obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest;
The Supreme Court in this case held that to be found guilty under Section
13(1)(d), there must be proof that the subject of the investigation, i.e the
person under investigation, obtained something valuable or financially
advantageous for himself or another person through dishonest or illegal means,
by abusing his position as a public servant, or by obtaining something valuable
or financially advantageous for another person without any consideration of the
The Court further observed that 'It is enough if by abusing his
position as a public servant a man obtains for himself any pecuniary advantage,
entirely irrespective of motive or reward for showing favour or disfavour'.
Section 13(1)(d) of the Act focuses on the extensive legislation. In Section 7
and Section 13(1)(a) and (b), the Legislature has specifically used the words
'accepts' and 'obtains'. Despite of that, the language of Section 13(1)(d)
particularly excludes the word 'accepts' and has expressly used the word
Furthermore the ingredients of the sub-clause are:
- Of sub-clause (i) that a public servant by corrupt or illegal means, obtains any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage;
- Of sub-clause (ii) that he has obtained such a thing or advantage by abusing his power of being a public servant;
- Of sub-clause (iii) that while holding a public office, such a thing or advantage is obtained without any public interest.
Therefore, the section expressly provides in the given case that, there must be
evidence on record to show that, the accused has 'obtained' any such thing or
advantage as mentioned in the section for himself or any other person by abusing
his post as a public servant or without any public interest. Also, the evidence
should be enough to prove that he has obtained such a thing by abuse of his
power, and the motive of the accused does not play a role in it.
This portrays the strict interpretation of the statute where it is required that
the requirements as given in the statute be duly satisfied, and does not go
beyond it to consider the intention of the accused. The omission of the word
accepts and the specific use of the word obtains represent the intention of the
legislature and thus it must be respected by strictly interpreting the provision
according to its grammatical meaning.
Burden Of Proof Under Section 20 (1)
Section 20 - Presumption where public servant accepts gratification other than
- Where, in any trial of an offence punishable under section 7 or section
11 or clause
(a) or clause (b) of sub-section (1) of section 13 it is proved that an accused
person has accepted or obtained or has agreed to accept or attempted to obtain
for himself, or for any other person, any gratification (other than legal
remuneration) or any valuable thing from any person, it shall be presumed,
unless the contrary is proved, that he accepted or obtained or agreed to accept
or attempted to obtain that gratification or that valuable thing, as the case
may be, as a motive or reward such as is mentioned in section 7 or, as the case
may be, without consideration or for a consideration which he knows to be
M. Narsinga Rao v/s State of Andhra Pradesh (2001)
According to Section 20 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 there is a
presumption that any expensive item or pleasure discovered in the hands of a
person under investigation was obtained for the reasons described in Section 7
of the Act. The individual under investigation would have the burden of proving
that the valued item or gratification was not obtained in connection with the
Act's violation. Accordingly, the Court held that a person under investigation
would be found guilty if no evidence was presented to refute the assumption.
The above provision exhibits the strict interpretation of the presumption of
guilt and the burden of proof being shifted from the prosecution to the accused.
The duty of the court is restricted to the formation of presumption from the
evidences provided and to examine them reasonably. When the court has reasons to
presume and believe that the gratification has been accepted outside the ambit
of the legal remuneration and the accused does not have evidences to prove the
contrary, the court has to strictly interpret the letter of the law and on the
fulfilment of the same hold the accused liable under the law.
It has been seen that when a accused is to be held liable under the state by
considering the letter of the law in the ordinary meaning and understanding of
that word, the court while dealing with such provisions has to strictly
interpret them and held him liable, and not go beyond the scope of the law and
indulge itself with the spirit or object of the law.
An accused can always argue
on the defence that even though his conduct falls within the express language of
the statute, the same is against its spirit. Nevertheless, even in such cases if
the letter of the law is satisfied, the accused will be liable for penalty. In
addition to that, where a conduct is both within the letter of the law as well
as its spirit, the Court is bound to interpret it like any other statute
according to the fair common sense meaning.
The strict interpretation of a penal statute does not always go against the
accused. In a case, where the provision is liable of two interpretations,
varying in the intensity of punishments awarded, that interpretation is to be
considered that is more lenient towards the accused, thus safeguarding him from
unnecessary harsh punishments.
Thus, it focuses more on the intention of the
legislature while making of the Act rather than the liberal interpretation of
it. As Penal statutes focus on the providing punishments, it is important to
restrict the Court to the express language of the statute so as to refrain any
innocent from getting punished and at the same time award the guilty with
adequate punishment which is in accordance to the given provisions made by the
List Of Abbreviations:
|All India Reporter
|Supreme Court Cases
- Interpretation of Statutes, Twelfth Edition, pp.239-240
- Motibai v/s R.Prasad (1970) S.C.J 559
- Spicer v/s Holt (1976) 3 AII ER 71
- Section 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988
- Subhash Prabhat Sonavane v/s State of Gujarat (2002)
- Section 20(1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988
Written By: Nistha Savar, 5th Year Law Student
Ph no: 9987004460, Email: [email protected]