Law and exception

The court is right not to reduce the juvenile age cut-off in response to the heinous Delhi gangrape

The December 16 gangrape of a 23-year old in Delhi has had enormous repercussions. Women's right to safety and autonomy became the overriding national issue for a while, political leaders felt the pressure from the streets, criminal law was amended in an effort to fill the gaps. But that popular anger has thrown up both good and bad ideas. For instance, because one of the accused was six months short of 18, and juvenile law would allow him a lighter punishment of three years in a correctional facility, if found guilty, many PILs have demanded a reboot of the law. They wanted the age limit to be reduced to 16, and for exceptions to be made for heinous crimes. The Supreme Court has now refused to interfere with the law. Rightly so. Laws are not meant to address exceptional cases or react to the heat of the moment. They stand for a general principle that must apply to all.

India defines those below 18 as minors, who have certain protections and do not have the same degree of criminal responsibility as adults. They are tried in juvenile courts, comprising a magistrate and two social workers, and the juvenile justice act is the only legislation applicable to them. Eighteen where our system draws the line, though it could well be 16, or variable depending on the violence of the crime, as it is in many other jurisdictions. Any change in the definition of minors would affect many other domains, and needs a considered judicial consensus it cannot be prompted by one incident and one person, to whom the change cannot retroactively apply anyway. It is important to understand the rationale of juvenile justice norms: the idea that children turn to crime because they have been failed by their society, deprived of schooling or sensitive counselling or a nurturing family environment, and because they do not have the capacities to deal with their context.

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