A close or narrow reading and interpretation of a statute or written document.
Judges are often called upon to make a construction, or interpretation, of an unclear term in cases that involve a dispute over the term's legal significance. The common-law tradition has produced various precepts, maxims, and rules that guide judges in construing statutes or private written agreements such as contracts. Strict construction occurs when ambiguous language is given its exact and technical meaning, and no other equitable considerations or reasonable implications are made.
A judge may make a construction only if the language is ambiguous or unclear. If the language is plain and clear, a judge must apply the PLAIN MEANING of the language and cannot consider other evidence that would change the meaning. If, however, the judge finds that the words produce absurdity, AMBIGUITY, or a literalness never intended, the plain meaning does not apply and a construction may be made.
In CRIMINAL LAW, strict construction must be applied to criminal statutes. This means that a criminal statute may not be enlarged by implication or intent beyond the fair meaning of the language used or the meaning that is reasonably justified by its terms. Criminal statutes, therefore, will not be held to encompass offenses and
individuals other than those clearly described and provided for in their language. The strict construction of criminal statutes complements the rule of lenity, which holds that ambiguity in a criminal statute should be resolved in favor of the defendant.
Strict construction is the opposite of liberal construction, which permits a term to be reasonably and fairly evaluated so as to implement the object and purpose of the document. An ongoing debate in U.S. law concerns how judges should interpret the law. Advocates of strict construction believe judges must exercise restraint by refusing to expand the law through implication. Critics of strict construction contend that this approach does not always produce a just or reasonable result.