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Strict Rule of Interpretation of Penal Statute: Prevention of Corruption Act

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

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.

Penal Statute
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 only.

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: [1]
  • 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.

Thus during 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)[2]
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)[3]
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 to:

  • 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 punishments.

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 strictly interpreted.

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)[4]

13. Criminal misconduct by a public servant:

  1. A public servant is said to commit the offence of criminal misconduct:
    1. If he:
      1. By corrupt or illegal means, obtains for himself or for any other person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage; or
      2. By abusing his position as a public servant, obtains for himself or for any other person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage; or
      3. While holding office as a public servant, obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest;

Subhash Prabhat Sonavane V/S State Of Gujarat (2002)[5]
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 public interest.

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 'obtains'.

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 legal remuneration:
  1. 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 inadequate.[6]

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 legislation.

List Of Abbreviations:

AIR All India Reporter
SCC Supreme Court Cases
Ors Others
v/s Versus
i.e That is
etc Et cetera
u/s Under Section
Govt. Government

  1. Interpretation of Statutes, Twelfth Edition, pp.239-240
  2. Motibai v/s R.Prasad (1970) S.C.J 559
  3. Spicer v/s Holt (1976) 3 AII ER 71
  4. Section 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988
  5. Subhash Prabhat Sonavane v/s State of Gujarat (2002)
  6. Section 20(1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988

Written By: Nistha Savar, 5th Year Law Student
Ph no: 9987004460, Email: [email protected]

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