Delhi court questions 'doublespeak' on juveniles

In a criminal trial, if a juvenile girl can be judged on the basis of her assumed mental and physical developments, why should a juvenile accused be let off by giving benefits that he was less than 18 years of age on the date of the incident?

While a debate rages over the trial of a Delhi gangrape accused who has been declared a juvenile, a Delhi court has questioned the "doublespeak" by the courts of law in the country, and regretted that different standards are being adopted when a juvenile is an accused and when she is a victim.

Additional Sessions Judge Kamini Lau, delivering a verdict in a case of kidnapping and rape of a minor girl, expressed dismay at the fact that there was no strict rule to be followed and hence two parameters were being exercised in criminal cases involving juveniles.

She referred to a 1964 Supreme Court verdict that gave benefit of doubt to a male accused in a similar case after noting that the victim was on the verge of attaining her majority. The judge, however, highlighted that this discretion with the courts was apparently taken away after the Juvenile Justice Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act made stricto-senso the age of majority as 18. It was mandated to ignore mental and physical development of the individuals.

"The courts of law cannot indulge in double speak by adopting two standards. One for the juvenile accused and another for the victim. If a juvenile accused is held entitled to the benefit of juvenility even if he or she is few days lesser than the age provided by the statute irrespective of the biological and mental development, then by the same logic the victim in case of a sexual offence is required to be protected even if she is on the verge of attaining majority or is few days less than the age of consent irrespective of her assumed mental or biological development," held ASJ Lau.

Pointing out that the principle needs to be "even handed", the judge said an accused cannot be given the benefit on the ground that a victim is an educated city girl and is capable of thinking and acting on her own when it is also held that a juvenile accused, equally educated and informed, would not be capable of thinking for himself and acting on his own merely because he is a few days or months less than turning 18.

The judge also referred to the personal laws where the age of puberty is considered to be the age of marriage. It implies that there is a "social and religious acceptance of the age of puberty to be the age of sexual maturity", the ASJ said. The judge said while she was personally in favour of carving out of exception in such cases, it was a call to be taken by the legislature and the constitutional courts.

In the case in hand, the court went by the strict mandate of the law and sentenced the man to seven years in jail on the charges of kidnapping and raping a girl aged around 15 years.

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