JJ Act: SC allows leeway to juvenile in fatal mishap case

New Delhi, January 9, 2020

In 2016, a juvenile, just a few days away from attaining adulthood, ran his Mercedes Benz car over a young man. The victim, 32-year-old marketing executive Siddharth Sharma, later died.

The Supreme Court on Thursday said the accused wouldn't go to jail since no minimum sentence was prescribed for this offence. Instead, the accused should be tried as a juvenile and kept under observation, if and when held guilty, it said.

A Bench, headed by Justice Deepak Gupta, held that an offence that didn't provide a minimum sentence of seven years couldn't be treated as heinous. "Since two views are possible, we would prefer to take a view that is in favour of children," said the court.

The alleged crime didn't come under the heinous offence under the Juvenile Justice Act, it observed.

"We are not solving a jigsaw puzzle where we have to put all the pieces in place. We are interpreting a statute that must be interpreted as per its language and intent," it said. What happened in this case was a 4th category offence, which was not dealt with under the Act, it added.

"It can't be said with certainty that the legislature intended to include this 4th category of offences in the category of 'heinous offences'. Merely because removing the word 'minimum' would make the Act workable is not a sufficient ground to hold that the word 'minimum' is surplusage", said Justice Gupta.

"Therefore, when the legal provision is clear, it's not possible to interpret it otherwise, and the top court is 'bound by law'," he said.

In this case, the juvenile was charged under Section 304 of the IPC, which is culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The maximum punishment is the life-term and up to 10 years in jail under two different sets of crimes under Section 304, but there is no minimum punishment.

However, according to the JJ Act a juvenile can be tried as an adult only in cases prescribed as heinous offence having seven years in jail as minimum punishment.

Interestingly, the juvenile board held that the delinquent could be tried as an adult, as he had mental capacity to identify the dangers associated with the act committed, but the Delhi High Court held that since no minimum sentence was prescribed for the offence in question, it didn't fall within the ambit of Section 2(33) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015.

The deceased's sister challenged the high court order in the Supreme Court through senior advocate Sidharth Luthra.

Luthra contended that the JJ Act was silent on dealing with a category of offences, which didn't have minimum punishment. And, the top court could interpret the law and hold that the offence fell in the category of heinous offences.

The court didn't agree with this line of argument. The top court urged lawmakers to amend the law, and insisted the accused couldn't be tried as an adult in this case.

"However, in view of what we have held above, the Act doesn't deal with the 4th category of offences viz., offence where the maximum sentence is more than 7 years imprisonment, but no minimum sentence or minimum sentence of less than 7 years is provided, shall be treated as 'serious offences' within the meaning of the Act and dealt with accordingly till Parliament takes the call on the matter," said the court.


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