The Supreme Court’s advice to the government to re-visit the law so that a juvenile cannot get away with rape and murder by claiming he is too young to understand the consequences of his crime is apt and well meaning.
The proposal to change the law had come against the backdrop of outrage over the relatively minor punishment meted out to a minor in the Delhi gangrape case of December 16, 2012 which had shocked the conscience of the whole nation. He was tried in a juvenile court last year and sentenced to three years in a reform home even though he was believed to be main perpetrator of the crime. His lighter punishment had triggered a debate on punishment for juveniles convicted of heinous crimes.
The Centre had in November last told the apex court in a separate case that it was considering how to make a distinction between minors and other juvenile delinquents engaged in heinous crimes like rape, murder and drug-peddling. This would prevent minor offenders from taking undue benefit from the Juvenile Justice Act.
Notably, a parliamentary panel on the Juvenile Bill, 2014, had in February shot down the proposal to send cases involving offenders between 16 to 18 years of age, accused in serious offences like rape and murder, to regular courts.
On Monday, the court was dealing with a petition filed by a person claiming that he was 17 years and nine months in the year 2000, when he killed a man for not repaying a loan in Haryana.
He challenged the trial, which he faced with five other accused, contending that the matriculation certificate was in his favour. He also urged the court to ensure that his matter be considered under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of the Children) Act, 2000.
While the general body of public opinion is for treating heinous crimes by juveniles on the same footing as with adults there are some dissenting voices. A lawyer and expert Anand Kumar has claimed that the whole Bill on treating juveniles on par with adults has come out of anger over the rape and murder of Nirbhaya (not her real name) in a particularly gruesome manner.
According to Anand Kumar, international convention and the committee on the rights of child has also cautioned against these kinds of amendments in the past.
A dispassionate analysis must be done before the law is changed, but the weight of arguments in favour of change appears much stronger.