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Juveniles won’t face regular courts, rules Supreme Court

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supremecourtNATIONAL LEGAL RESEARCH DESK

The Supreme Court today refused to lower the age of juvenile from 18 years saying the legislature has fixed the age which is constitutionally permissible. A three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam, rejected two petitions, filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and parents of December 16 gangrape victim, challenging the constitutional validity of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000.

“If the legislature has adopted the age of 18 as the dividing line between juveniles and adults and such a decision is constitutionally permissible, the enquiry by the courts must come to an end. Even otherwise there is a considerable body of world opinion that all under 18 persons ought to be treated as juveniles and separate treatment ought to be meted out to them so far as offences committed by such persons are concerned,” the bench, also comprising justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiv Kirti Singh, said. The petitioners had sought fresh interpretation of the term ‘juvenile’ in the statute and leaving it to the criminal court, instead of Juvenile Justice Board (JJB), to determine the juvenility of an offender in heinous crimes. They pleaded the juvenile accused in December 16, 2012 gangrape victim be prosecuted in a criminal court in view of the gravity of his offence. The bench, however, upheld the constitutional validity of the Act and dismissed the petitions. The court said in its 68-page judgement that the object of the JJ Act was to rehabilitate such offenders so that they could become “useful members” of the society later on.

“India has accepted the above position and legislative wisdom has led to the enactment of the JJ Act in its present form. If the Act has treated all under 18 as a separate category for the purposes of differential treatment so far as the commission of offences are concerned, we do not see how the contentions advanced by the petitioners to the contrary on the strength of the thinking and practices in other jurisdictions can have any relevance,” it said. The apex court also said there was no difficulty in understanding the clear and unambiguous meaning of different provisions of the JJ Act.

“There is no ambiguity, much less any uncertainty, in the language used to convey what the legislature had intended. All persons below the age of 18 are put in one class/group by the (JJ) Act to provide a separate scheme of investigation, trial and punishment for offences committed by them.

Some excerpts from the Judgement:

The Court in its Landmark judgement has laid bare the different process of trying offences committed by children. Having laid bare all that is necessary for  a  purposive  adjudication of the issues that have been raised by the rival camps we  may  now  proceed to examine the same.  The Act, as  manifestly  clear  from  the  Statement  of  Objects  and Reasons, has been enacted to give full and complete effect to the  country’s international obligations arising from India being a signatory to the  three separate conventions delineated hereinbefore,  namely,  the  Beijing  Rules, the UN Convention and the Havana Rules.  Notwithstanding the  avowed  object of the Act and other such enactments to further the country’s  international commitments, all of such laws  must  necessarily  have  to  conform  to  the requirements of a valid legislation judged in the context  of  the  relevant constitutional provisions and the judicial verdicts rendered  from  time  to time.  Also, that the Act is a beneficial  piece  of  legislation  and  must therefore receive its due interpretation as a legislation belonging  to  the said category has been laid down by a Constitution Bench of  this  Court  in Pratap Singh vs.  State of Jharkhand and Another[10].  In other  words,  the Act must  be  interpreted  and  understood  to  advance  the  cause  of  the legislation and to confer the benefits of  the  provisions  thereof  to  the category of persons for whom the legislation has been made.

Reading down the provisions of a statute cannot be  resorted  to  when the meaning thereof is plain and unambiguous and the legislative  intent  is clear.  The fundamental principle of the  “reading  down”  doctrine  can  be summarized as follows.  Courts must read the legislation  literally  in  the first  instance.   If  on  such  reading  and  understanding  the  vice   of unconstitutionality is attracted, the courts must explore whether there  has been an unintended legislative omission.   If  such  an  intendment  can  be reasonably implied  without  undertaking  what,  unmistakably,  would  be  a legislative  exercise,  the  Act  may  be  read  down  to   save   it   from unconstitutionality.  The above  is  a  fairly  well  established  and  well accepted principle of interpretation which having been  reiterated  by  this Court time and again would obviate the necessity of any recall of  the  huge number of precedents available except,  perhaps,  the  view  of  Sawant,  J. (majority view) in Delhi Transport Corporation vs. D.T.C.  Mazdoor  Congress and  Others[11]  which  succinctly  sums  up  the  position  is,  therefore, extracted below.

India child workersIn the present case there is no difficulty in understanding the  clear and unambiguous meaning of the different provisions of the  Act.   There  is no ambiguity, muchless any uncertainty, in the language used to convey  what the legislature had intended.  All persons below the age of 18  are  put  in one class/group by the Act to provide a separate  scheme  of  investigation, trial and punishment for offences committed by them.  A class of persons  is sought to be created who are treated differently.  This  is  being  done  to further/effectuate the views  of the  international  community  which  India has shared by being a signatory to  the  several  conventions  and  treaties already referred to.

 Classification  or  categorization  need  not  be  the  outcome  of  a mathematical or arithmetical precision in the similarities  of  the  persons included in a class  and  there  may  be  differences   amongst  the  members included within a particular class.  So long as the broad  features  of  the categorization are identifiable and distinguishable and  the  categorization made is reasonably connected with the object targeted, Article 14  will  not forbid such a course of action.  If the inclusion of all  under  18  into  a class called ‘juveniles’ is understood  in  the  above  manner,  differences inter se and within the under  18  category  may  exist.  Article  14  will, however, tolerate the said position.  Precision  and  arithmetical  accuracy will not exist in any categorization.  But such precision  and  accuracy  is not what Article 14 contemplates.  The above principles have been laid  down by this Court in a plethora of judgments and an  illustrative  reference  to some may be made by recalling  the  decisions  in  Murthy  Match  Works  and Others vs. The Asstt. Collector of  Central  Excise  and  Another[12],  Roop Chand Adlakha and Others vs. Delhi  Development  Authority  and  Others[13], Kartar Singh vs. State of Punjab[14], Basheer alias  N.P.  Basheer  vs.State of Kerala[15], B. Manmad Reddy  and Others vs.  Chandra  Prakash  Reddy  and Others[16], Transport and Dock Workers Union  and  Others  vs.  Mumbai  Port Trust and Another[17] .

If the provisions of the Act clearly indicate the  legislative  intent in the light of the country’s international commitments and the same  is  in  conformity with the constitutional requirements, it  is  not  necessary  for the Court to understand the legislation in any other manner.   In  fact,  if the Act is plainly read and understood, which  we  must  do,  the  resultant effect thereof is wholly consistent with Article 14.   The  Act,  therefore, need not  be  read  down,  as  suggested,  to  save  it  from  the  vice  of unconstitutionality for such unconstitutionality does not exist.

Contrary  international  opinion,  thinking or practice, even  if  assumed,  does  not  dictate  the  legislation  of  a sovereign nation.  If the legislature has adopted  the  age  of  18  as  the dividing  line  between  juveniles  and  adults  and  such  a  decision   is constitutionally permissible the enquiry by the Courts must come to an  end.  Even otherwise there is a considerable  body  of  world  opinion  that  all under 18 persons ought to be treated as  juveniles  and  separate  treatment ought to be meted out to them so far as offences committed by  such  persons are concerned.  The avowed object  is  to  ensure  their  rehabilitation  in society and to enable the young offenders to become useful  members  of  the society  in  later  years.   India  has  accepted  the  above  position  and legislative wisdom has led to the enactment of the JJ  Act  in  its  present form.  If the Act has treated all under 18 as a separate  category  for  the purposes of  differential treatment so far as  the  commission  of  offences are  concerned,  we  do  not  see  how  the  contentions  advanced  by   the petitioners to the contrary on the strength of the  thinking  and  practices in other jurisdictions can have any relevance.

In the earlier paragraphs of this report we have  analyzed  in  detail the difference between the  criminal  justice  system  and  the  system  for dealing with offenders under the JJ Act.   The  Act  does  not  do  away  or obliterate the enforcement of the law  insofar  as  juvenile  offenders  are concerned.  The  same  penal  law  i.e.  Indian  Penal  Code  apply  to  all juveniles.  The only difference is that a different  scheme  for  trial  and punishment is introduced by the Act  in  place  of  the  regular  provisions under the Code  of  Criminal  Procedure  for  trial  of  offenders  and  the punishments under the Indian Penal Code.   The  above  situation  is  vastly different from what was before the Court in Mithu (supra) and also  in  Dadu (supra).  In Mithu (supra) a separate treatment of the accused found  guilty of a second incident of murder during the currency of the  sentence  for  an earlier offence of murder was held to be  impermissible  under  Article  14. Besides the absence of any judicial discretion, whatsoever,  in  the  matter of imposition of sentence for a second Act of murder was held to be “out  of tune” with the constitutional philosophy of  a  fair,  just  and  reasonable law.  On the other hand in Dadu (supra), Section 32A of the NDPS  Act  which had ousted the jurisdiction of the  Court  to  suspend  a  sentence  awarded under the  Act  was  read  down  to  mean  that  the  power  of  suspension, notwithstanding Section 32A of the NDPS Act, can still be exercised  by  the appellate court but subject to  the  conditions  stipulated  in  Section  37 namely (i) there are reasonable grounds for believing that  the  accused  is not guilty of such offence; and (ii) that he is not  likely  to  commit  any offence while on bail are satisfied.  Nothing as sweeping and as drastic  in Mithu (supra) and Dadu (supra) has been introduced by the provisions of  the Act so as to enable us to share the view expressed  by  Dr.  Hingorani  that the Act sets at naught all the essential features of  the  criminal  justice system and introduces a scheme which  is  abhorrent  to  our  constitutional values.  Having taken the above view, we do not  consider  it  necessary  to enter  in  the  consequential  arena,  namely,  the  applicability  of   the provisions of Article 20(3) of the Constitution and Section 300 of the  Code of Criminal Procedure to the facts of the present case as on the  view  that we have taken no question of sending the juvenile – Raju to face  a  regular trial can and does arise.

Before parting, we would like to  observe  that  elaborate  statistics have been laid before us to show the extent of serious crimes  committed  by juveniles and the increase in the rate of such crimes, of late.   We  refuse to be tempted to enter into the  said  arena  which  is  primarily  for  the legislature to consider.  Courts must take care not to express  opinions  on the sufficiency or adequacy of such figures and should confine its  scrutiny to the legality and not the necessity of the law to be  made  or  continued.

We would be justified to recall the observations of Justice Krishna Iyer  in Murthy March Works (supra) as the  present  issues  seem  to  be  adequately taken care of by the same:

 “Right at the threshold we must warn ourselves of the limitations of judicial power in  this  jurisdiction.  Mr  Justice  Stone  of  the Supreme Court of the United States has delineated these limitations in United States v. Butler (1936) 297 US 1 thus:

 “The power of Courts to declare a  statute  unconstitutional  is subject to two guiding principles of decision which ought  never to be absent from judicial consciousness. One is that Courts are concerned only with the power to enact statutes, not with  their  wisdom. The other is that  while  unconstitutional  exercise  of   power  by  the  executive  and  legislative  branches   of   the government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our exercise of power is our own sense of self-restraint For the removal of unwise laws from the statute books appeal lies not to            the Courts but to the ballot and to the processes of  democratic Government.”

 In short, unconstitutionality and not unwisdom of a legislation is the  narrow  area  of   judicial   review.   In   the   present   case unconstitutionality is alleged as springing from lugging together  two  dissimilar categories of match manufacturers into one compartment  for like treatment.

Certain principles which bear upon classification may be mentioned here. It is true that a State may classify persons and objects for the  purpose of legislation and pass laws  for  the  purpose  of  obtaining revenue  or  other   objects.   Every   differentiation   is   not   a  discrimination. But classification can be  sustained  only  if  it  is  founded on  pertinent  and  real  differences  as  distinguished  from   irrelevant and artificial ones. The constitutional standard  by  which  the sufficiency of the  differentia  which  form  a  valid  basis  for   classification may be measured, has  been  repeatedly  stated  by  the  Courts. If it rests on a  difference  which  bears  a  fair  and  just  relation to the object for which it is proposed, it is constitutional. To put it differently, the means must have nexus with the  ends.  Even  so, a large latitude is allowed to the State for classification upon a  reasonable basis and what is reasonable is  a  question  of  practical details and a variety of factors which the Court will be reluctant and perhaps  ill-equipped  to  investigate.  In   this   imperfect   world  perfection even in grouping is an ambition hardly  ever  accomplished. In this context, we have to  remember  the  relationship  between  the legislative  and   judicial   departments   of   Government   in   the determination of the validity of classification.  Of  course,  in  the  last  analysis  Courts  possess  the  power  to   pronounce   on   the constitutionality  of  the  acts  of  the  other  branches  whether  a classification is based upon substantial differences or is  arbitrary,  fanciful and consequently illegal. At the same time, the  question  of classification is primarily for legislative  judgment  and  ordinarily does not become  a  judicial  question.  A  power  to  classify  being extremely broad and  based  on  diverse  considerations  of  executive       pragmatism, the Judicature cannot rush in where even  the  Legislature warily treads. All these operational restraints on judicial power must weigh more emphatically where the subject is taxation.”

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