History of Juvenile Justice in India

7 Jun 2024  Read 1542 Views

As per the NCRB, last year, minors in the country committed a total of 30,555 crimes; Delhi is 6th on the list, with over 2,340 cases involving minors. In 2020, the cases registered against minors exceeded 2,643.

The journey of juvenile justice legislation in India is a reflection of the country's commitment to reform and rehabilitation, particularly for children in conflict with the law. Over the better half of a century, India's legal framework for juveniles has evolved significantly, shaped by both domestic needs and international standards.

Development of Juvenile Justice Legislation

The system of juvenile justice legislation has been shaped by a consistent emphasis on reform and rehabilitation, particularly in the context of drafting laws for juveniles and children in conflict with the law. The enactment of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986 and its subsequent revisions marks a significant milestone in this evolution.

This shift was further propelled at the end of the 21st century, driven by the need to align with international standards such as those set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (1985), and the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (1990). This legislative journey culminated in the adoption of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, and its model rules, later updated in 2007.

A critical juncture in this journey was the response to the 2012 Delhi gang rape incident involving a juvenile offender. Despite the Supreme Court upholding the Act’s constitutional validity in 2015, public outcry over perceived justice failures prompted legislative amendments. This culminated in the passing of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, which was enacted on January 15, 2016, as the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

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Goals and Procedural Aspects of the Juvenile Justice Act

The Juvenile Justice Act, ratified by India in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, sets forth procedural safeguards for children in conflict with the law. It addresses key issues from the prior law such as adoption delays, case backlogs, and institutional accountability. Moreover, it aims to tackle the increasing criminal activities among children aged 16 to 18.

The act outlines several measures for reforming minors found guilty of offenses, including returning them home with appropriate counsel and caution, engaging them in social work to instill societal values, group counseling, and activities promoting teamwork. In cases of severe crimes, the minor might be placed in a reform home for at least three years, extendable as required.

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International Context and Historical Background

Globally, juvenile justice systems vary. In the US, for instance, juveniles may be treated as adults under certain conditions, such as repeat offenses or near-adult age. In contrast, the UK's juvenile courts focus on both protecting children's rights and addressing societal influences that lead to juvenile crime, reinforced by legislative acts like the Children and Young Offenders Act 1993 and the Criminal Justice Act 1948.

Historically, India's approach has evolved significantly since the enactment of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986, which was largely a reaffirmation of the Children's Act of 1960 with minor modifications. This evolution reflects an ongoing commitment to align domestic policies with international standards and address the unique needs of minors in conflict with the law.

Juvenile Justice Act, 1986

The adoption of the United Nations Minimum Rules for Administration of Juvenile Justice in 1985 introduced the term "minor" into international law, significantly impacting domestic legislation with the enactment of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986.

Prior to 1979, regions such as Lakshadweep, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Chandigarh, and Sikkim had the Children’s Act but did not enforce it. Assam and Himachal Pradesh implemented the laws without establishing requisite institutions, while Nagaland lacked a separate law for children altogether. By the mid-1980s, the Children’s Acts were operational in 442 out of 444 districts.

Effective October 2, 1987, the Juvenile Justice Act 1986 was implemented nationwide, promoting uniform juvenile justice laws across India. The Act of 1986, largely mirroring the Children's Act of 1960, made minor yet significant updates, including semantic changes in its preamble from "maintenance, social assistance, training, and education" to "training and development" and substituting "minor" with "child."

Key provisions

Section 2: Introduced definitions for a suitable person, institution, and safe place, expanding the definition of a neglected child to include minors who were or were likely to be abused or exploited.

Sections 52, 53, and 54: Established social welfare and juvenile rehabilitation funds and advisory councils and appointed visitors to juvenile institutions.

Juvenile Justice Act of 2000

This Act was a robust response to the principles outlined in UN conventions like the CRC, the Beijing Rules, and the 1990 Rules. Focused on rehabilitation over retribution, the Act represented a paradigm shift in handling juvenile offenses.

Applicability and Impact

A Landmark Case, Jameel v. The State of Maharashtra, clarified the Act's applicability, asserting that the Juvenile Justice Act 2000 does not apply retroactively to offenses committed before its enactment.

Raj Singh v. State of Haryana reinforced that the juvenile justice system has precedence over other laws, regardless of the crime's nature.

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Structure and Process
  • Juvenile Justice Board: Established under Section 4, the board has the authority to handle cases involving minors and ensure they are not tried in adult courts.

  • Observation Homes: Set up in each district or group of districts to temporarily house juveniles during investigations.

  • Children’s Homes: Managed by the state government, these facilities provide care, protection, and rehabilitation for children during and post-investigation.

Innovations and Protections

Juveniles are prohibited from being held in police jails or prisons. Investigations into juvenile cases must be completed within four months, and they are extendable under specific conditions.

Inspection and Oversight

Inspection committees are established at state, district, and city levels to oversee the management and operation of children’s homes, ensuring compliance with established standards and the effective rehabilitation of juveniles.

These legislative frameworks demonstrate India's commitment to aligning with global standards for juvenile justice, emphasizing the rehabilitation and humane treatment of minors in conflict with the law.

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 received Presidential assent on December 31, 2015, and was thereby enacted to consolidate and amend existing laws relating to children in conflict with the law. It aims to provide for their care, protection, development, treatment, social reintegration, and handling through a child-friendly approach that promotes the healthy development and rehabilitation of the child.

Overview of the Act

The Act extends to the whole of India except for the State of Jammu and Kashmir. It comes into force on a date specified by the Central Government in the Official Gazette. The Act takes precedence over any other current laws concerning the care, protection, and treatment of children and their integration or involvement in legal issues, including their detention, prosecution, and rehabilitation.

Response to Increasing Juvenile Crimes

The legislation was particularly influenced by the rise in serious crimes, including sexual offenses, committed by juveniles aged 16 to 18. This led to provisions where juveniles committing heinous crimes can be tried as adults, albeit within the juvenile justice system. This shift towards a more punitive approach sparked considerable debate and criticism regarding its constitutionality and adherence to international standards on child rights.

Key Provisions of the Act
  • Definition of 'child in need of care and protection' expanded: This now includes children who are found working illegally, at risk of early marriage, living with abusive or threatening adults, or whose caregivers are unable to provide proper care.

  • Child Welfare Committee's authority modified: Decisions made by the Child Welfare Committee can now be reviewed by a district judge, thus no longer making the Committee the final authority.

  • Enhanced procedures for inquiry: The Committee is mandated to conduct investigations for any child brought before it, including those who are orphaned or abandoned.

  • Adoption defined more comprehensively: The law now provides a detailed definition of adoption, recognizing the rights of the child more explicitly.

Important Definitions Under the Act

A "child in conflict with the law" refers to individuals under 18 who are accused or found guilty of committing a crime.

The term "juvenile" has been retained but is now defined under Section 2(35) of the Act as a person below 18 years.

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Rules, 2016

These rules are the primary legislative framework guiding the implementation of the Act, supported by international documents like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Beijing Rules.

Recent Amendments and Changes (2015)

  • Juveniles aged 16 to 18 who commit grave crimes can now be tried in adult courts.

  • The period for preliminary assessment of juveniles has been extended to three months from the previous one month.

  • New provisions ensure that children are not disqualified from education or employment opportunities due to their criminal records.

  • The adoption reconsideration period has been extended from one to three months.

  • Provisions for aftercare and financial aid have been expanded to provide better support for children leaving institutional care.

  • Increased protections and prioritizations in cases of interstate adoption and for children with disabilities.

  • Implementation and monitoring of the Act are to be overseen by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and the State Commissions.

These updates reflect a shift in handling juvenile justice in India, balancing between the need for stringent measures against serious offenses and the traditional focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of minors into society.


The history of juvenile justice in India reflects a dynamic and evolving commitment to protecting and rehabilitating young offenders. From the enactment of the Juvenile Justice Act of 1986 to the more comprehensive Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2015, India has continually refined its approach to align with international standards and address the unique needs of minors in conflict with the law.

These legislative efforts underscore a broader societal understanding that children, even when involved in serious offenses, require a justice system that emphasizes rehabilitation over retribution. The significant amendments over the years, especially in response to high-profile incidents and public discourse, highlight the delicate balance between ensuring justice and fostering the healthy development of juveniles.

As India moves forward, the focus must remain on effective implementation and continuous improvement of the juvenile justice system. This includes adequate training for those involved in juvenile care, robust monitoring mechanisms, and a supportive environment for the reintegration of young offenders into society. Addressing the root causes of juvenile delinquency, such as socio-economic challenges and lack of education, is crucial for creating a just and equitable system.

The journey of juvenile justice in India is far from over. It is a testament to the country's ongoing commitment to nurturing a fair, compassionate, and rehabilitative approach to juvenile delinquency. By continuing to evolve and adapt, India can ensure that its juvenile justice system not only holds young offenders accountable but also provides them with the opportunity to become responsible and productive members of society.

About the Author: Ayushman Tripathi | 2 Post(s)

Interested in Cyber and Tech Law, Ayushman is pursuing his PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Hidayatullah National Law University Raipur. He has taught as a full-time faculty member at NLU Mumbai and delivered guest lectures at other universities, such as Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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