A Pune-based businessman has challenged in the Supreme Court the constitutional validity of a recently passed law lowering from 18 to 16 years the age at which a person accused of a serious crime, such as rape or murder, can be tried as an adult.
Parliament ratified last year the Juvenile Justice (care and protection of children) Act, 2015, spurred into action by widespread outcry over the release of a minor convicted in the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in the Capital in 2012. On January 4, President Pranab Mukherjee endorsed the law.
The petition filed by entrepreneur and Congress supporter Tehseen Poonawalla calls the Act “unreasonable” and “arbitrary” while saying it violates the principle of right to equality laid down by the Constitution.
Poonawalla’s plea says the law has become “draconian” and “unconstitutional” following the amendment, specifically challenging section 15 that says in case a juvenile is arrested for indulging in a heinous crime and is found to be above 16 years but below 18, then he or she could face trial similar to an adult offender.
The release of the youngest convict in the Delhi gang-rape case had led to street protests in which the victim’s family participated, sparking debate over whether India was too soft on young offenders.
Campaigners for the reduction in age argued that the maximum three-year sentence would be too lenient to fit the crimes in this case. However, child rights activists said changing this section of the law in response to a public outcry over a single case, would be a regressive step.
According to Poonawalla, the Act does not provide care and protection to children, which should be the objective of any law dealing with delinquent juveniles. Instead, it deems the offenders as adults in cases where the alleged commission of crime by them is heinous in nature.
Under the law, a juvenile justice board will conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a young offender can be sent for rehabilitation or be tried as an adult.
The plea also says the amendment goes against the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is against the protection accorded to child and adolescent criminals since the 1800s.
The Act also allows any 16 to 18-year-old who commits a less serious offence to be tried as an adult, only if he or she is apprehended after the age of 21 years.
After Parliament passed the legislation, women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi had said the Act aimed to strike a balance between the rights of a child and the need to deter heinous juvenile crimes, especially against women.