Skin to Skin contact: SC stays Bombay HC order acquitting man under POCSO

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New Delhi, Jan 27 (PTI) The Supreme Court Wednesday stayed the Bombay High Court order which acquitted a man under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act saying “groping a minor's breast without 'skin to skin contact' cannot be termed as sexual assault”.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian stayed the high court order after Attorney General K K Venugopal mentioned the matter.

The top court also issued notice to Maharashtra government and permitted the AG to file an appeal against the January 19 verdict of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court.

“In view of what is stated, we permit the learned Attorney General to file an appropriate petition against the said judgment. In the meantime, we stay the acquittal of the accused in Criminal respect of the offence under section 8 of the POCSO Act. Issue notice to the accused and the State of Maharashtra returnable two weeks,” the bench said in its order.

Venugopal, while mentioning the matter before the bench, submitted that the judgment of the high court is “unprecedented” and is likely to set a “dangerous precedent”.

The verdict said that groping a minor's breast without 'skin to skin contact' cannot be termed as sexual assault as defined under the POCSO Act.

It said that since the man groped the child without removing her clothes the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault but it does constitute the offence of outraging a woman's modesty under IPC section 354.

The high court had modified the order of a sessions court, which had sentenced a 39-year-old man to three years of imprisonment for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.

Meanwhile, a lawyers’ body the ‘Youth Bar Association of India’ have also filed a plea in the top court challenging the high court.

The plea filed through advocate Manju Jetley states that the observations made by the high court in its verdict would have a wide impact in the society and public at large.

The verdict further held that mere groping will not fall under the definition of sexual assault.

As per the prosecution and the minor victim's testimony in court, in December 2016, the accused, one Satish, had taken the girl to his house in Nagpur on the pretext of giving her something to eat.

Once there, he gripped her breast and attempted to remove her clothes, the high court had recorded in her verdict.

However, since he groped her without removing her clothes, the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault and, instead, constitutes the offence of outraging a woman's modesty under IPC section 354, the high court had held.

While IPC section 354 entails a minimum imprisonment for one year, sexual assault under the POCSO Act entails a minimum imprisonment of three years.

The sessions court had sentenced the man to three years of imprisonment for the offences under the POCSO Act as also under IPC section 354. The sentences were to run concurrently.

The high court, however, acquitted him under the POCSO Act while upholding his conviction under IPC section 354.

'Considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence (under POCSO), in the opinion of this court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required,' the high court said.

'The act of pressing of breast of the child aged 12 years, in the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside the top and pressed her breast, would not fall in the definition of sexual assault,' it said.

It further said that 'the act of pressing breast can be a criminal force to a woman/ girl with the intention to outrage her modesty'.

The POCSO Act defines sexual assault as when someone 'with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus or breast of the child or makes the child touch the vagina, penis, anus or breast of such person or any other person, or does any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact without penetration is said to commit sexual assault'.

The court, in its verdict, had held that this 'physical contact' mentioned in the definition of sexual assault must be 'skin to skin' or direct physical contact.

'Admittedly, it is not the case of the prosecution that the appellant removed her top and pressed her breast. As such, there is no direct physical contact i.e. skin to skin with sexual intent without penetration,' the High Court had said. PTI MNL ABA SJK SA