CONSTRUCTION OF PENAL STATUTES6 min read

                                                                                                                 By- HIMADRI BADONI

In the words of Salmond-“The essence of law lies in the spirit, not in its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it.”, interpretation of the law is its soul, for it is only through interpretation, that the tool of justice is able to successfully serve its purpose. Interpretation, in simple terms, is the process of understanding the true meaning of law and helping it evolve to cater to the needs of justice in the contemporary society. It includes the views of the judges and how they inculcate their views with the principles of law. It also helps in filling the gaps and getting rid of the ambiguity which is often left as a result of improper drafting of the statues.

Construction in legal terms on the other hand, is the process through which conclusions are drawn beyond the direct assertion of the legal text. Through this process, the courts of law draw conclusions after closely analyzing the connotations as well as the denotations of the terms used in the text of the statutes. Construction is the application of the conclusions drawn from the facts that are pending before the court. This process of explication is known as Legal Exposition.

To bring a uniformity in the administration of law and justice conducted by the hon’ble judges so that fair decisions are taken and uniformly followed, certain rules for interpretation of law have been framed. Different rules namely, The Golden Rule, Literal or Grammatical Rule, Harmonious Construction and The Mischief Rule etc.

PENAL STATUTES

The principle of strict interpretation of a law that sanctions or imposes a penalty is not universally applicable. It is imperative to keep this in mind in all cases, but it has limited application and is for selecting one, in cases where two or more constructions are pretty open. The rule was originally designed to soften the severity of monstrous penalties for petty crimes, and while that need and severity have all but faded, the difference in focus of one criminal law versus any other law remains. For Lord Esher, MR, “the established rule for the construction of penal compartments is, If there is a reasonable interpretation that avoids the penalty in a particular case, we must adopt that construction. If there are two reasonable constructions, we should give the more forgiving one.”

Further, The rule that all criminal law must be strictly interpreted was stated by Lord Justice James in a case on behalf of the Privy Council as follows [1]:

The strict construction of a criminal law means that it must be interpreted strictly in favor of the person being prosecuted. This rule implies a preference for the freedom of the subject in the event of ambiguities in the language of determination. It is a sound principle that if the words used in a criminal law are reasonably susceptible to two constructions, the construction in favor of the  accused is to be preferred, but obviously the context in which they are used must be properly considered in constructing the relevant words.

In the case of M.U Joshi v. M. V Shimpi[2], the petitioner was convicted under the Section 16 of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, as he was charged for the sale of adulterated butter. The petitioner pleaded that he had made the butter from curd and not from milk, unlike the rules for butter made under the Act. Since, this Act was a penal statute, the term ‘butter’ had to construed strictly in the accused person’s favor.

In Seksaria Cotton Mill Limited Company v State of Bombay[3], a notification was issued under the Essential Supplies Act 1946, which required every manufacturer to submit correct and accurate information pertaining to his dealings. Further, the term ‘delivery’ was defined as ‘actual physical delivery’. The petitioner who had sold bales to the buyer, the one who refused to take delivery due to some dispute with the petitioner, kept the bales pending settlement in his warehouse and entered the disputed bales as ‘delivered’ in his return book. Consequently, he was convicted by the High Court as he had not given actual physical delivery. In the furtherance of the issue, the hon’ble Supreme Court allowed the appeal and stated that when two rational interpretations are possibly inferred from a penal statute, the one which favours the accused is to be preferred. Consequently, it was held that, because the goods had been actually delivered to the agent, the requisites of the Act had been fulfilled without damaging the language of the text.

Another significant case on this rule is Chinubhai v. State of Bombay[4]. In this case, several workers had entered into the premises of a factory with the aim of stopping the gas leakage from a machine. Unfortunately, they inhaled the poisonous gas and died. The question before the court was that whether the employer of the dead workers was liable under the Section 3 of the Factories Act. Section 3 of the Act strictly states that no person shall be allowed to enter a confined space that contains dangerous fumes. The apex court while strictly construing the provision held that the Section 3 of the Act does not levy an absolute duty on an employer to prevent his workers from entering such areas. It was further observed by the apex court that although there some employees present in the ‘confined space’, it still did not prove that they were permitted to do so by their employer. Consequently it was held that in order to convict the accused, the prosecution had to prove that the workers entered the factory premises with their employer’s permission.

Further in the case of Tolaram v. State of Bombay[5], Section 18 of the Bombay Rentals, Hotels and Lodging House Rates Control (Control) Act of 1947 has been interpreted. This section makes it a punishable offence if any landlord receives premium, fine or any other sum or deposit or consideration, other than the rent in respect of the grant, continuance or renewal of a lease of a premise. The Supreme Court ruled that the section did not prohibit considering money from the owner of an incomplete building.Construction in legal terms on the other hand, is the process through which conclusions are drawn beyond the direct assertion of the legal text.

Conclusion

While dealing with a penal statute, in regards to provisions that have been approved on the pain of penalty for a criminal offence, the rule of strict interpretation must be applied in a limited manner in order to preserve the greater good.

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

[2] AIR 1961 SC 1494

[3] 1954 SCA 299

[4] AIR 1960

[5] 1954 AIR 496, 1955 SCR 439

Construction in legal terms on the other hand, is the process through which conclusions are drawn beyond the direct assertion of the legal text.

READ ALSO- Internal Aid of Interpretation (Marginal Notes, Headings, Definition) or Interpretation Clauses