SC clears air on age disputes

New Delhi, Dec. 28: The matriculation certificate or the date-of-birth certificate issued by a school should be considered the primary evidence in determining the juvenile status of an accused, the Supreme Court has held.

It set aside the findings of a sessions court and Punjab and Haryana High Court, both of which had rejected the certificates produced by the accused and relied on certain initial statements made by him and his mother.

The two lower courts had determined that the accused was not a minor and therefore not entitled to the immunity granted under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000.

But in a recent order, the apex court disagreed and cited an earlier judgment to spell out how the age of such an accused should be determined. (See chart)

In the recent Delhi bus rape, one of the accused claims to be a juvenile and it remains to be seen whether he can establish the claim in accordance with these parameters.

Mumbai attacks convict Ajmal Kasab too had claimed to be a juvenile but the plea was rejected after an ossification test ' a bone test ' revealed he was over 21 years old at the time of the November 2008 carnage.

"In a case where genuineness of the school-leaving certificate has not been questioned, the sessions court and the high court were not justified in placing reliance on certain statements made by Parkash Kaur, mother of the accused, in the cross-examination," the bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra said.

"The sessions court also committed an error in placing reliance on the certificate issued by the village chowkidar (a privately hired village guard-cum-data keeper).... When the law gives prime importance to the date-of-birth certificate issued by the school first attended, the genuineness of which is not disputed, there is no question of placing reliance on the certificate issued by the village chowkidar."

The court ruled that the accused should be tried by the Juvenile Justice Board.

The accused was arrested in Amritsar while allegedly waiting for someone to hand over 2kg heroin. He told an Amritsar special court he was a juvenile since he was born on July 20, 1996. He produced a certificate issued by the Government High School, Naushehra Cheema (Tarn Taran), in support of the claim.

But the state opposed the application, arguing that during the interrogation, the accused had said he was born in 1991. It cited the village chowkidar's certificate that showed the date of birth as July 5, 1993.

The sessions court rejected the plea of the accused and the high court agreed. It held that the mother of the accused, while testifying, could tell neither his date of birth nor how many years after her marriage he was born.