Strict Interpretation of Penal Statues

Salmond defines “interpretation” as “a process by which the Court seeks the meaning of Legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it expresses”. The manner, in which the courts have been interpreting penal statutes, has been changing over time. There was a point where it was believed that a penal statute had to be construed strictly in favour of the accused. With the flux of time tow contradictory developments have influenced the interpretation of penal statutes.[1].

 A Court of law is bound to proceed upon the assumption that the legislature is an ideal person that does not make mistake[2]. It is the duty of the Court to interpret the language actually employed and to determine the intention of the legislature from such language and where there is no ambiguity about the language actually employed, neither the recommendation if the Law Commission, nor the aims and objects set out in the Statement of Objects and Reasons can be brought in aid or can be allowed to influence the natural grammatical meaning of the statute as enacted by the Parliament[3].

The rule of strict construction of penal statutes is said to be founded on the tenderness of the law for the rights of individuals and on the plain principle that the power to define a crime and ordain its punishment is vested in the legislature and not in the judicial department[4]. It is a reasonable expectation that legislature will manifest its intention with reasonable clarity in penal statutes.

According to Maxwell the rule of strict construction of penal statutes manifests itself in four ways[5]— (1) Express language is necessary for creation of criminal offences; therefore, no act is to be deemed criminal unless it is clearly made so by words of the statute concerned. But it is not necessary that a particular penalty be specified in order that an act or omission may constitute an offence.

(2) The words setting out the elements of an offence are to be strictly construed. And if there is any reasonable doubt or ambiguity it will be resolved in favor of the person charged. A reasonable interpretation which will avoid the penalty must be adopted. If there are two reasonable constructions the court must give the more lenient one. The court must always see that the person to be penalized comes fairly and squarely within the plain words of the enactment.

(3) Punishments can be imposed only if the circumstances of the case fall clearly within the words of the enactment.

(4) Similarly, statutes dealing with jurisdiction and procedure are, if they relate to the infliction of penalties, strictly construed.

 The rule that all penal statutes must be strictly construed has been explained by Lord Justice James in a case speaking for the Privy Council thus[6]:

Strict construction of a penal statue means that it is to be construed narrowly in favour of the person proceeded against. This rule implies a preference for the liberty of the subject in case of ambiguity in the language of the provision. It is well founded principle that if the words used in a criminal statute are reasonably capable of two constructions, the construction which is favourable to the accused should be preferred but in constructing the relevant words it is obviously necessary to have due regard to the context in which they have been used.

In M.U Joshi v M. V Shimpi[7] , the appellant was convicted under section 16 of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 for selling adulterated butter. He contended that it was not butter within the meaning of the rules made under the Act because butter means butter made from milk whereas he had sold butter made from curd. Further, the Act being a penal statute the word butter had to be strictly construed in favour of the accused

In the case of State of Andhra Pradesh vs. Nagoti Venkatarma[8] it has been held by the supreme court that in the interpretation of penal provisions, Strict construction is required to be adopted and if any real doubt arises, necessarily the reasonable benefit of doubt would be extended to the accused.

In Seksaria Cotton Mill Limited Company v State of Bombay[9]  , as per a notification issued under the Essential Supplies Act 1946, every manufacturer was required to submit true and accurate information about his dealings; and delivery was defined to mean actual physical delivery. The appellant, who had sold some bales to purchaser who did not take delivery because of some dispute with the appellant, asked his agent to keep the bales in godown pending settlement. The appellant entered those bales as delivered in his return book. The appellant was convicted by the High Court for not giving actual physical delivery. Allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court said that when two reasonable interpretations are possible of a penal statute, that which favours the accused should be accepted. It was held that since the goods were actually delivered to the agent, the requirements under the Act were fulfilled without straining the language.

Chinubhai vs State of Bombay[10], is an important case in this respect. In this case, several workers in a factory died by inhaling poisonous gas when they entered into a pit in the factory premises to stop the leakage of the gas from a machine. The question was whether the employer violated section 3 of the Factories Act, which says that no person in any factory shall be permitted to enter any confined space in which dangerous fumes are likely to be present.  The Supreme Court, while construing the provision strictly, held that the section does not impose an absolute duty on the employer to prevent workers from going into such area. It further observed that the fact that some workers were present in the confined space does not prove that the employer permitted them to go there.  The prosecution must first prove that the workers were permitted to enter the space to convict the accused.


A statute may in certain aspects be a penal enactment and in certain others a counteractive one. In respect of those provisions which are approved on the pain of punishment for a crime the rule of strict construction in the limited sense may be applied. At any rate, as undue effort to construe such a provision liberally to encourage the beneficent purpose behind it may be effectively counter balanced on deliberation that a breach thereof leads to penal consequences.

[1] Seventilal Maneklal Seth v. Commr. Of Income Tax(Central) Bombay, (1968) 2 SCJ 129.

[2] Thakur Madho Singh v. Lieut.Kames, R.R.Skinner, AIR 1942 Lahore 243

[3] Subhash Ganpat Roy Buty v. maroti, AIR 1975 Bom 244; Indian Chamber of Commerce v. CIT West Bengal AIR 1976 SC 348

[4] M.Narayanan Nambiar Vs. State of Kerala,1963 SCR Supl.(2) 724

[5] Lord Evershed, M.R. – Foreword to Maxwell’s Interpretation of Statutes 11th Edition

[6] London Railway Co. v Be& N. Eastern Berriman, 1946 , I ALL ER 255, p 270 HL

[7] AIR 1961 SC 1494

[8] 1996(6) SCC 409

[9] 1954 SCA 299

[10] AIR 1960

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