Juvenile Justice Act essentially a social welfare law

The involvement of a "minor" in the horrific Delhi gangrape has sparked a debate on the Juvenile Justice Act, including whether exceptions should be made depending on the crime or if the age of a juvenile itself should be lowered. With the Supreme Court on Monday deciding to examine the definition of juvenile in the Act, The Indian Express looks at the law and the nuances of its statutory provisions:

What is the Act?

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, amended in 2006 and 2011, contains statutory provisions to handle cases relating to minor offenders, called as "delinquents," "juveniles in conflict with law" or as "children in need of care and protection". The word "accused" is not purposely used for minor offenders so as to prevent the stigma associated with it. The Act is essentially a social welfare legislation, crafted specially to deal with offenders under the age of 18 and aimed at their proper care, protection and treatment through catering to their development needs. It makes it mandatory for juvenile courts to adopt a child-friendly approach in the adjudication and disposition of matters.

What is the definition of 'juvenile' as per law?

Section 2(k) of the Act defines a "juvenile" or a "child" as a person who has not completed 18 year of age while 2(l) says a "juvenile in conflict with law" means a juvenile who is alleged to have committed an offence. Regarding determination of the age of a juvenile, the Act calls for a "due inquiry" by competent authority usually the Juvenile Justice Board. Rules under the Act lay down that medical opinion on the age of an accused be sought only if he fails to produce matriculation or an equivalent educational certificate, or a birth certificate in absence of the former.

What are the provisions for bail?

Whenever a juvenile is arrested for an alleged offence, he requires to be immediately produced before the Juvenile Justice Board. The law says that the Board, irrespective of the offence, should release him on bail, with or without any surety. However, the juvenile must be sent to an observation home or a "place of safety" by a speaking order of the Board, explaining the reasons for not releasing him on bail. During the "inquiry" and not a "trial", such delinquents are to be housed in the observation home and the "inquiry" has to be completed within four months.

Are there any provisions for rarest of rare cases?

Certain provisions under the Act leave some discretion with the Board's magistrate to pass orders in exceptional cases. Section 15(g), which was brought after an amendment, states that the Board can order putting a juvenile, between the ages of 17 and 18, in a special home for a period of not less than two years.

Section 16 talks about penalising orders that cannot be passed against juveniles and imposes an absolute prohibition on a life term or death sentence or even any duration of jail term. At the same time, the proviso to this Section says that if the "Board is satisfied that the offence committed is so serious in nature or that his conduct and behaviour have been such that it would not be in his interest or in the interest of other juvenile in a special home to send him to such special home and that none of the other measures provided under this Act is suitable or sufficient", it may seek the assistance of the state government for placing him in an appropriate institution. On receiving a report from the Board, the government may arrange for keeping a juvenile under protective custody at a place, but not for more than three years or till he turns 18.

Can they be lodged in an institution after they turn 18?

Section 44 of the Act provides for establishment or recognition of after-care institutions by the state government for lodging juveniles after their release from observation homes. However, the period of such stay for a juvenile over 17 but less than 18 has been limited to three years or till he attains the age of 20 years.

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