Interpretation of statutes

This article is written by Michael Shriney from the Sathyabama Institute of Science and Technology. This article discusses liberal and strict  construction of penal statutes with important case laws, the distinction between strict and liberal construction of statutes, and how strict and liberal interpretations of penal statutes are construed.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The interpretation of statutes is restrained to courts of law. Courts have developed a large and complicated set of rules to guide individuals in construing or interpreting laws. The majority of interpreting laws are contained in the books of interpretation of statutes, and it is helpful to the drafter to maintain these interpreting laws in consideration during drafting Acts. For example, when interpreting Canadian laws, the interpretation of statutes must strictly follow every Canadian Act that is remedial to its Act and acquire reasonable, broad, and liberal construction to ensure the achievement of the Act’s purpose, which defines the Act’s original objective, meaning, and character. It is the responsibility of the court to give effect to an Act in order to obtain its actual meaning, while the process of rules or principles is formed to interpret which is restricted to courts.

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Interpretation is the process of finding the legal meaning of any legislation that means more than construction. The finding of the meaning of a parliamentary Act or a provision of a parliamentary Act is referred to as interpretation. The extraction of grammatical meaning is a major focus of construction. 

“Strict construction” refers to the interpretation which is made strictly, that assures each word in legislation must be interpreted by letter and that the interpretation should never go beyond the statute. A close or narrow reading of interpretation is known as a strict construction. In this approach, courts must follow the literal rule. The term “liberal construction” relates to interpretation that is applied freely with the goal of ensuring the purpose or advancing the aims of the legislation. In this construction, the courts will choose between the golden rule and the mischief rule.

What is a liberal construction of statute

The term “liberal construction” refers to the ability of the Bench to interpret different factors while determining the meaning of a word or document. According to this interpretation, the author most likely meant what the reader believes. The interpretation must be made liberally with the goal of promoting or discovering the state’s objective. In the event of welfare laws, equivocal terms or ambiguous language, and hindering statutes, liberal construction is used.

Liberal construction may also refer to beneficial or benevolent legislation, such as the Employer’s State Insurance Act,1948 and the Contract Labour Act,1970. This construction is governed by the golden rule and the mischief rule, which are referred to by judges. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986  is a valuable method of law that protects the interests of consumers. It ought to be interpreted liberally. A provision in legislation offering incentives for boosting growth and development should be liberally read such that the actual purpose of such encouragement is not hindered.

The mischief rule is applied when a statute is ambiguous but does not invent imaginary ambiguities. When the legislation is plain and clear, this criterion does not apply. The mischief rule established an entirely different approach to the interpretation of statutes. It is also referred to as a functional, purposeful, logical, and social engineering norm of interpretation. It is a vital tool for legislative interpretation of statutes, but the intent or goal of the legislation is not always plain or transparent, or it seems different to various observers. The whole impact is undeniably one of the most flexible interpretations of statutes.

“The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning,” according to Viscount Simon L.C.  It is argued that “unless it can be proven that the legal context in which the words are employed needs a different interpretation, the natural and usual meaning of words shall not be deviated from”. When interpreting with an exemption clause, the words must be given a liberal interpretation, with no abuse to the language. It should be noted, however, that illogical interpretation outcomes should be avoided. Thus, when interpreted liberally, judges refer to the golden rule and the mischief rule.

Inapplicability of liberal construction or beneficial rule:

  1. When the Court determines that applying the rule of liberal interpretation, would result in re-legislating a statute provision by substituting, adding, or changing the terms in the statute. Then this construction does not apply.
  2. When a term in law can only have one meaning, the application is not possible. However, if a term may have more than one meaning, liberal Construction is possible to apply.
  3. If the statute’s provision is clear, unambiguous, and without doubt, the applicability of Liberal construction is not possible.- Shyam Sunder v. Ram Kumar, (2001) referenced with approval in Union of India v. Tata Chemicals, (2014)
  4. Beneficent legislation may have to be liberally interpreted, but when a statute does not allow for more than one interpretation, a literal interpretation must be used — Collector of Central Excise v. Saurashtra Chemicals, (2007)
  5. The assumption of liberal interpretation of beneficial law applies only when two points of view are available – Manipal Academy of Higher Education v. Provision Fund Commissioner 2008 

Case laws

Allahabad Bank v. All India Allahabad Bank Retired Employees Association, (2010)

In this case, the skilled counsel for the appellant side argued that remedial statutes, as opposed to punitive statutes, such as welfare, beneficent, or social justice focused legislation, are preferable to penal statutes. Such welfare statutes should be liberally construed. They must be interpreted in order to get the remedies contemplated by the legislation. It is well established, and there is no need for repetition, that labour and welfare statutes must be broadly and generously construed with appropriate consideration for the directive principles of state policy. Welfare, beneficent, or social justice-oriented statutes should always be construed liberally. In this case, this was the judgement.

Om Prakash v. Reliance General Insurance, (2017)

The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is a beneficial legislation that needs to be liberally construed in order to defend the interests of consumers. This was the verdict.

Secretary v. Suresh, (1999)

The Contract Labour Regulation Act, 1970 is a beneficial piece of legislation that should be given the broadest possible meaning in terms of the words used. Courts are created for the benefit of society, and a question presented in the matter of interpreting beneficial legislation with a liberal construction would not be appropriate, nor would a question posed in the matter of interpreting the same with a narrow pedantic approach.

Madan Singh v. Union of India, (1999)

In the case, the Court’s obligation is to liberally interpret a provision, particularly one that is helpful, in order to offer a broader meaning rather than a limited reading that would contradict practically every goal of the law.

Radhyshyam v. Mewalal, (1929)

The Allahabad High Court ruled that the Excise Act should be interpreted strictly and constructed liberally in the public interest.

What is a strict construction of a penal statute

The term “strict construction” refers to a statute that is strictly construed in legislation. Each word must be interpreted by letters, and the interpretation must not exceed the scope of the legislation. It is a legal theory that applies in a narrow manner or in a strict manner of interpretation to legal legislation such as the United States Constitution. The bench’s ability to read a text in written form that is provided inside the four boundaries of a legal document must be evaluated. The constitution must be rigorously construed in its original meaning. 

This form of construction is used in taxation and criminal legislation. In strict construction interpretation, the courts refer to the literal rule. The literal rule, alternatively known as the simple rule, is a traditional rule used by English courts. It is a guideline of law interpretation that in the first instance, the grammatical interpretation of words must be followed. This is the earliest construction rule to which judges refer when referring to strict construction. Even today, judges utilize it since they do not have the authority to make laws. In each and every system of interpretation, it is the primary and first interpretation of laws. In other words, it’s just what the law says rather than what the law was meant to express. 

The term “strict construction” refers to “a close or narrow reading and interpretation of a legislation or written document.” In cases involving a dispute over terms of legal meaning, the bench is sometimes called upon to determine a construction or interpretation of an ambiguous or confusing phrase. The common law tradition has created a number of maxims and guidelines that help courts interpret legislation or agreements such as contracts. Strict construction occurs when ambiguous legal language is treated as an accurate and precise interpretation and no further fair evaluations or justifiable consequences are considered. When interpreting legislation affecting the subject’s liberty, strict construction is recommended, but only after verifying that all conditions are met before the subject’s liberty is restrained.

In terms of penal law, strict construction must be used in penal legislation, which implies that penal statutes may not be broadened by assumption or purpose beyond the fair meaning of the language employed or the interpretation that is fairly justified by its provisions. These statutes will not be construed to include offenses or people other than those expressly defined and provided for in their wording. The rule of liberal is aided by the rule of strict construction under penal statutes, which states that any complexity in a penal statute should be settled in favor of the defendant. According to strict construction criteria of Maxwell, the gravity of the criminal legislation should be determined. Penal legislation must be strictly construed, as stated in Smith v. Wood (1889) and Kamal Prasad v King-Emperor (1947).

Case laws 

State of Jharkhand v. Ambay Cements, (2005) 

The judgment, in this case, was decided by a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court, and it was determined that: 

  1. The exemption clause must be rigorously construed, and it is not available to the Court to ignore conditions specified in the exemption notification.
  2. A mandatory rule must be carefully obeyed, but a directory rule may be satisfied with sufficient adherence.
  3. When legislation prescribes a certain Act to be performed in a specific manner and states that failure to comply with the said requirement results in serious consequences, such requirement is mandatory.
  4. It is the basic principle of interpretation that if a statute directs that something must be done, it must be done in the manner specified and not in any other way. 
  5. Where legislation is criminal in nature, it must be rigidly construed and obeyed.

State of Punjab v. Ram Singh, (1922)

The facts of the case seem to be that a constable was caught wandering in a public spot with a gun, having been intoxicated while on duty. During a medical check, he abused the doctor. It was determined that the policeman was capable of committing the most crimes as a result of his drinking. The Supreme Court construed strict construction in accordance with Maxwell standards, which are based on the seriousness of Penal legislation, and found it justified to punish him for his misbehavior.

Bakhtawat Singh v. Balwant Singh, (1927)

The Allahabad High Court held that if punishment has been issued for failing to observe the requirements of any legislation, it shall be construed strictly.

Difference between strict and liberal construction of  penal statutes

Strict Construction of penal statutesLiberal Construction of penal statutes
1.Strict Construction states that each word in legislation must be interpreted letter by letter, and the interpretation must not go beyond the scope of the statute.Liberal construction indicates that the interpretation must be liberal in order to advance the legislation or accomplish the legislation’s purpose.
2.Courts favour literal rule under this construction.Courts favour  the golden rule or mischief rule under this construction.
3.Taxing and criminal laws are strictly construed.The Employers State Insurance Act and the Contract Labour Act are both liberally construed.
4.Strict construction denies widening the law, resolving all reasonable disputes against the applicability of penal Acts, and disabling statutes.Liberal construction broadens the law by resolving any reasonable uncertainties against the applicability of welfare laws, unclear words or sentences, and disabling statutes.
5.It refers to the process through which legislation is broadened in order to express legislative purpose.It refers to the process through which  legislation is constrained in order to express legislative purpose.
6.This construction implies that the bench believes that the original text has all of the answers to any present or future difficulties.If the legislation is unclear or ambiguous in nature, this interpretation can be expanded to grasp the attitudes and things change.
7.This strict construction can be used even if just one interpretation is needed.This statute construction is performed when a statute does not allow for two or more interpretations.
8.A strict interpretation is necessary for sales tax.For the prevention of animal cruelty, a liberal interpretation is necessary
9.The strict construction is interpreted rigidly by the courts. They do not mistake in their interpretations of the legislation, and the decision is solely based on the original text.The liberal construction is freely interpreted by the courts. They are not bound by the exact interpretation of the law and can interpret it in a variety of ways using liberal construction.

Case laws

Ravula Subba Rao and Another v. the Commissioner Of Income-tax, (1956)

In this case, there is a distinction between strict and liberal construction in respect to the following question: “Why should a statute be given a strict or liberal interpretation, depending on the situation? The only possible accurate response is that the sort of construction used gives effect to the legislative intention. Sometimes, in order to make the legislation effective, a liberal construction is required, and sometimes, such construction will defeat the legislature’s intention. If this is the correct understanding of the rule of construction to be followed, then a strict or liberal construction is simply a method of extending or restricting the scope of a statute in order to convey the legislative meaning. If this is the proper position to be given strict and liberal constructions, it would make no difference whether the statute in question was penal, criminal, remedial, or in exemption of common right, because the distinction based on this classification would be meaningless.”


Thus, liberal and strict interpretations of penal legislation are applied to interpret regulations in their own way. The strict interpretation of penal legislation is carefully construed in favour of the individual being prosecuted. In the event of an ambiguity in the text of the provision, this rule suggests a predilection for the subject’s liberty. Criminal and penal laws must be rigidly construed and cannot be widened by intention, interpretation, or fair considerations. If a liberal interpretation is established in criminal legislation, it must be for the advantage of the public interest. Penal laws should not have a retrospective effect since it is harmful to the accused’s interests. The literal rule of interpretation will be used by the courts in strict interpretation. The golden rule of interpretation, or the mischief rule, will be applied by the courts in liberal interpretation.



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