New Delhi, Feb. 4: The Supreme Court today decided to examine the constitutional validity of the juvenile justice act, which grants immunity from jail for crimes like the bus gang rape, and wondered if age had any "nexus" with the gravity of an offence.
"Tell us whether fixation of (below) 18 years as an age for a juvenile has any nexus with the crime and gravity of a criminal act of a person. Can such a person commit a dacoity or murder?" a two-judge bench asked attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati.
After some initial opposition, Vahanvati conceded the issue did "require consideration" by the apex court.
Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra then asked the Centre to get back to it within six weeks.
The directive came on a public interest petition by two lawyers who contended that the 2000 act violated Articles 14 (equality before law) and 21 (liberty).
The trigger for the PIL was the eventually fatal December gang rape where, among the six accused, the youngest ' a minor ' was allegedly the most brutal.
The petition said the juvenile act was a "special social beneficial legislation" that provides "blanket cover/protection" against all and every offence committed, unmindful of the "nature and gravity" of the crime. It also contended that mental maturity was not uniform in all children up to the age of 18.
Last week, a three-judge bench had observed that the minor accused would be tried under the juvenile act, despite the clamour to try him, along with the other accused, under regular IPC sections on murder and gang rape that provide for the death penalty.
If the minor is tried under the juvenile act, he would get away with a maximum sentence of three years in a reformatory home. The contention of the petitioners was that it would violate Article 14. It would also pose a threat to the liberty of other citizens once the minor is released.
Vahanvati said the Justice Verma committee, set up to suggest ways to strengthen laws on sex crimes, did not recommend lowering the age of juvenility.
"But we are hearing it on a judicial side," the bench retorted. "You tell us the position."
Vahanvati said the states needed to be heard too. "Notices can be sent to the states and NGOs also," he said.
"Why should it be done? It is your law enacted by Parliament. So we want to hear you," the bench said, adding that a number of countries had reduced the age of juvenility from 18 to 16. "We have to consider the constitutional validity of Articles 14 and 21."
Vahanvati said the question is "what" a juvenile has done and "why" he has done it. "Societal matters are relevant factors. Either we bring down the age from 18 years to 16 years or give the discretion to award punishment to the courts. But that will create a lot of problems," he said.
"But the issue has to be considered," the bench said.
Vahanvati agreed, saying: "It does require consideration."
The bench then fixed April 3 for further hearing.