Ever wondered how the law decides if someone is old enough to be held criminally responsible? In the infamous Nirbhaya rape case of 2012, one of the four convicts was a minor, and he was never charged as an adult. There was a public outcry as to why a 17-year-old committing a serious crime shouldn't be treated the same as adults. Are we truly equipped to draw the line between adolescence and adulthood in the eyes of the law?
In the blog, you will get an idea of how the age of an accused is determined in the realm of justice. Let's make this legal concept as easy as pie!
What is Juvenility?
Juvenility refers to the state of being a minor, i.e., an individual below a certain age limit. In India, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2015 governs matters related to juveniles. This Act was enacted in 2015 and replaced the previous Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000. As per Section 2(12) JJ Act 2015, a juvenile is someone who has not yet completed 18 years of age.
When does the Act cover a Child?
The Act recognises two kinds of Children: one who has committed some offence (Child in Conflict with Law) and one who is a victim of crime or circumstances (Child in Need of Care and Protection).
In legal practice, if a person committed an offence and is a juvenile, i.e., juvenile accused, then in such a scenario, the person is referred to as a “Child in Conflict with Law” (CCL) and not the “Accused”.
As per section 15 of the Act, the Juvenile Justice Board conducts preliminary assessment where a CCL, between 16 years to 18 years of age, is alleged to have committed a heinous offence, i.e., for which the minimum punishment under the Indian Penal Code 1860 or any other Law for the time being in force is imprisonment for seven years or more, it may transfer him to the Children's Court for trial as an adult.
What is the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB)?
To effectively address cases involving juveniles, the Juvenile Justice Board is a judicial body before which Child in Conflict with Law (CCL) is brought. This Board shall consist of a Metropolitan Magistrate or a Chief Judicial Magistrate with at least three years of experience and two social workers selected in such a manner as they may be prescribed, of whom at least one shall be a woman. The JJB's main duties include determining whether an individual qualifies as a juvenile, attending to developmental needs, and providing care, protection, treatment, case procedures, inquiries, and final orders for children's ultimate rehabilitation that are in line with the law and the best interests of the child.
The Act provides that under no circumstances can the Board regulate and operate from regular court premises, and the decision taken by the Principal Magistrate shall be final.
How to determine the age of a Juvenile?
Deciding whether an accused person is a juvenile or not involves a careful consideration of various factors. In India, we follow a simple yet important process outlined in Section 94 of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015.
Observation by Committee or Board:
Imagine a situation where it's crystal clear that the person in question is a child just by looking at them. In such cases, the Juvenile Justice Committee or Board doesn't waste time waiting for confirmation. They quickly note down the child's age as closely as possible and jump right into the inquiry process. Easy, right?
Reasonable Doubt and Age Determination:
When determining if someone is a juvenile or not, a hyper-technical approach is a no-no. Now, things get a bit trickier when there's some uncertainty about whether the person is a child or not. Here's where the Committee or Board steps in and plays detective. They collect evidence to figure out the age, and here are the options:
a. School Certificates: If the person has a date of birth certificate from school or a matriculation certificate, that's a golden ticket.
b. Government Certificates: In the absence of school certificates, the date of birth certificate from a government authority like a corporation, municipality, or local authority could be considered.
c. Plan C - Medical Tests: If neither of the above is available, it's time for Plan C. They might resort to an ossification test or some other medical age test. The Ossification test is basically an X-ray of a few bones that helps estimate a person's age. This test is more reliable for individuals around 18 years old, as the hand and wrist bones can be assessed. Importantly, this medical test is conducted only on the order of the Committee or Board and must be completed within fifteen days from the date of the order.
Once the age is recorded by the Committee or Board, it is considered the true age of the person for the Juvenile Justice Act. This recorded age guides further proceedings, emphasizing the importance of accuracy in the determination process.
Om Prakash vs State Of Rajasthan & Anr (2012)
In this case, the Hon'ble Supreme Court clearly stated that "While considering the relevance and value of the medical evidence, the doctor's estimation of age although is not a sturdy substance for proof as it is only an opinion, such opinion based on a scientific medical test like ossification and radiological examination will have to be treated as a strong evidence having corroborative value while determining the age of the alleged juvenile accused."
Tohid Rehman Shaikh and Fareeda Rehman Shaikh vs. The State of Maharashtra (2023)
In this instance, the Hon'ble Bombay High Court underscored the relevance of the Juvenile Justice Act 2015, particularly highlighting Section 94(2)(i), which specifies obtaining "the date of birth certificate from the school." The Court clarified that the requirement does not mandate the certificate to be from the first school attended. It was established that an accused asserting juvenile status is not obliged to furnish a date of birth certificate from the 'first' school; rather, a certificate from any school attended is acceptable under the JJ Act 2015.
Rehabilitation and Reformation
One of the fundamental principles of juvenile justice in India is focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The legal system recognizes the malleability of young minds and aims to provide opportunities for reform and reintegration into society.
If a juvenile is found guilty of an offence, the law prescribes special provisions for their sentencing. Instead of regular imprisonment, the emphasis is on corrective measures, such as counselling, education, and vocational training. The duration of such measures is determined by the JJB, keeping in mind the juvenile's best interests.
If you want to read about the Child Abuse Laws in India, then click on the link.
In a nutshell, determining the age of an accused person in India is a mix of observation and a bit of detective work. The law wants to make sure it's fair and square when it comes to dealing with young minds caught up in the legal web. So, there you have it - a simple guide to understanding this straightforward approach; law students and legal professionals can navigate the complexities of juvenile justice, ensuring that the rights and welfare of young individuals are safeguarded throughout legal proceedings.