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Lodging juveniles in adult prisons amounts to depriving them liberty: SC

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New Delhi: Lodging juveniles in adult prisons amounts to deprivation of their personal liberty and a hyper-technical approach should not be adopted in deciding whether an accused is juvenile or not, said the Supreme Court on Monday.
The observation by a bench of Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and J B Pardiwala came while dealing with a plea of a convict seeking directions to the Uttar Pradesh government to verify his exact age on the date of the commission of the offence.
The plea for verification of the age was started by the convict after the apex court confirmed his life imprisonment in a murder case in 1982.
While undergoing life imprisonment he was subjected to a medical examination by the Medical Board constituted by the State in pursuance of the judgement rendered by the Allahabad High Court.
The Medical Board gave its report certifying that on the date of the commission of the alleged offence on September 10, 1982, the convict could have been around 15 years of age.
Based on the findings and documents from the family register, the convict moved to the top court claiming that he was a juvenile on the date of the commission of the alleged offence in the year 1982 and he could not have been put to trial along with other co-accused.
Delivering the judgement on his plea, the apex court bench directed the sessions court to examine the authenticity and genuineness of the Family Register sought to be relied upon by the convict.
“There can be no cavil in saying that lodging juveniles in adult prisons amount to a deprivation of their personal liberty on multiple aspects,” the bench said.
The apex court also asked the sessions court to ensure that the convict is medically examined by taking an ossification test or any other modern recognized method of age determination and asked it to submit a report within a month.
“While appreciating the evidence adduced on behalf of the accused in support of the plea that he is a juvenile if two views are possible on the same evidence, the Court should lean in favour of holding the accused to be juvenile in borderline cases.
“The inquiry contemplated is not a roving inquiry. The Court can accept as evidence something more than an affidavit i.e. documents, certificates, etc. as evidence in proof of age,” the bench said while dealing with a plea of a convict seeking directions to the UP government to verify the exact age of the convict on the date of the commission of the offence.
The top court said a mere opinion by a person as to the accused looking one or two years older than the age claimed by him or the fact that the accused told his age to be more than what he alleges in the case while being arrested by the police officer would not hold much water.
“It is the documentary evidence placed on record that plays a major role in determining the age of a juvenile in conflict of law. And, it is only in the cases where the documents or certificates placed on record by the accused in support of his claim of juvenility are found to be fabricated or manipulated, that the Court, the Juvenile Justice Board, or the Committee need to go for medical test for age determination,” the bench said.
It said ideally, there should not be any dispute as to the age of a person if the birth is registered in accordance with law and the date of birth is entered in the school records based on a genuine record of birth.
“However, in India, the factors like poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, indifference, and inadequacy of the system often lead to there being no documentary proof of a person’s age.
“Therefore, in those cases where the plea of juvenility is raised at a belated stage, often certain medical tests are resorted to forage determination in absence of the documents. The rule allowing the plea of juvenility to be raised at a considerably belated stage has its rationale in the contemporary child rights jurisprudence which requires the stakeholders to act in the best interest of the child,” the bench said.
The apex court said awareness about the child’s rights and correlated duties remain low among the functionaries of the juvenile justice system.
“Once a child is caught in the web of the adult criminal justice system, it is difficult for the child to get out of it unscathed. The bitter truth is that even the legal aid programmes are mired in systemic bottlenecks and often it is only at a considerably belated stage of the proceeding that the person becomes aware of the rights, including the right to be differently treated on the ground of juvenility.
“What needs to be kept in mind is the main object and purpose of the Juvenile Justice Act. The focus of this legislation is on the juvenile’s reformation and rehabilitation so that he also may have an opportunity to enjoy as other children,” the bench said.

Press Trust of India

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