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Is reformative slant of law emboldening juveniles to indulge in heinous crimes, SC asks

The apex court made the observation while holding that one of the accused in the 2018 Kathua gangrape and murder case should be tried as an adult.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday expressed concern over “rising rate of juvenile delinquency” and wondered if the lenient approach of law was emboldening children to indulge in heinous crimes.

A bench of justices Ajay Rastogi and JB Pardiwala asked the government to find out if the special legislation — Juvenile Justice Act — meant to deal with delinquent juveniles has served its purpose and whether it requires any modifications to handle the growing involvement of those under 18 years in serious crimes.

The court made the observation while holding that one of the accused in the Kathua gangrape and murder case should be tried as an adult. The court set aside the orders of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Kathua and the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that held that the accused was a juvenile.

The brutal gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua was reported in 2018. A special fast-track court had sentenced three men to life imprisonment in the case. Trial of one of the accused, Shubham Sangra, was transferred to the juvenile board after it was concluded that he had not attained the age of 18.

However, setting aside the orders, the top court held Wednesday that there were discrepancies in the certificates on record disclosing the date of birth of the accused, Sangra. The apex court relied on the medical report that concluded the accused could have been between 19-23 years of age when the incident occurred in January 2018.

The apex court bench made significant remarks over juvenile delinquency, saying the matter required immediate attention.

The bench mentioned the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 that stresses on reforming juveniles found to be in conflict with law, including those involved in heinous crime.

If it is proven that a juvenile was not aware of the consequences of his/her action, then the accused is tried under the special law and does not face the rigours of a trial under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPc) which is ordinarily followed for adult offenders. On being pronounced guilty, a juvenile is sent to a reformation home and can be kept there for a period of three years.

“There is a school of thought existing in our country that firmly believes that howsoever heinous the crime may be, be it single rape, gangrape, drug peddling or murder, but if the accused is a juvenile, he should he dealt with keeping in mind only one thing, i.e, the goal of reformation,” the judgement noted.

‘Wonder whether Juvenile Justice Act has subserved its objective’

Commenting on the objective of the law, the court said: “The manner in which brutal and heinous crimes have been committed over a period of time by the juveniles and still continue to be committed makes us wonder whether the (Juvenile Justice) Act, 2015 has subserved its objective”.

It further said: “We have started gathering an impression that the leniency with which the juveniles are dealt with in the name of goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes.”

The bench left it to the “government to consider whether its enactment of 2015 has proved to be effective or something still needs to be done in the matter, before it is too late in the day”.

In the specific case before it, the bench held that the medical expert’s opinion regarding the age of the accused may not be a statutory substitute for proof, but it cannot be disregarded or ignored when the court itself is in doubt about his age.

In the absence of all other acceptable materials, if experts’ opinion points to a reasonable possibility regarding the range of his age, the Court must consider the same in the interest of justice, the top court said.

The Chief Judicial Magistrate, Kathua and the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir had held that the accused was a juvenile on the basis of dates recorded by the executive officer of Hiranagar Municipal Committee in Kathua, which showed Sangra’s date of birth as 23 October 2002.

Appealing against the HC order, the then state of Jammu and Kashmir said there is no cogent, clear and convincing documentary evidence on record to suggest or indicate that the respondent was born on that day.

Agreeing with the state’s view, the SC said that when an “accused commits a heinous and grave crime like the one on hand and thereafter attempts to take the statutory shelter, under the guise of being a minor, a casual or cavalier approach while recording as to whether an accused is a juvenile or not, cannot be permitted as the courts are enjoined upon to perform their duties with the object of protecting the confidence of a common man in the institution entrusted with the administration of justice”.

Also read: Kathua gangrape victim’s family hopeful of justice as SC declares accused adult


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