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Accused in Gurugram school murder case to be tried as adult: When does the law treat a juvenile as an adult?

In the Gurugram case, the accused was 16 when he allegedly killed a boy in his school washroom. What are the norms for treating minors as adults in heinous crimes?

The Supreme Court said on July 13 that while considering a child as an adult, one should look at his or her physical maturity, cognitive abilities, and social and emotional competencies. (file)

The Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) on Monday (October 17) ordered that a man, who was 16 when he allegedly killed a seven-year-old schoolmate in Gurugram in 2017, will be tried as an adult.

The JJB in July had sought a psychologist’s opinion of the accused, to determine whether he had the mental capacity to commit the crime and understand its consequences on the date of the killing. It had directed the psychologist to submit a report on August 3 before the board.

This is the second time that the JJB has ordered that the man be tried as an adult. The Supreme Court on July 13 had upheld a 2018 order by Punjab and Haryana High Court that the accused be examined again. It had also asked the central government, national and state child right bodies to consider issuing guidelines to facilitate JJBs in making the preliminary assessment to determine whether a child of 16 and above can be tried as an adult for a heinous offence.

What does the law say on trying a juvenile as an adult?

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According to Section 15 of The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJ Act), where a child of 16 years of age or above has committed a heinous offence — a crime for which the minimum punishment is seven years imprisonment — the JJB is required to “conduct a preliminary assessment with regard to his mental and physical capacity to commit such offence, ability to understand the consequences of the offence and the circumstances in which he allegedly committed the offence” before deciding if the child should be tried as an adult.

The assessment is required to be done within three months from the date of first production of the child before the JJB. The apex court also said that when the JJB does not comprise a practising professional with a degree in child psychology or child psychiatry, it would have to mandatorily seek the assistance of experts.

Prior to the 2015 amendment in the original JJ Act, all children below the age of 18 years were treated as juveniles. The JJB is composed of a judicial officer and two social workers.

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What happens when a juvenile is ordered to be treated as an adult?

The case is transferred before the children’s court. As per Section 19 of the amended Act, the court can pass a decision on whether there is a need for trial of the child as an adult, or otherwise. A children’s court has to ensure that the child in conflict with the law is sent to a “place of safety” until he reaches the age of 21 years, and is only then transferred to jail.

The court can also order the conditional release of the child after he attains the age of 21 years. Two important protections — protection from disqualification, and erasure of conviction record after a reasonable period — do not extend to a child who has been tried as an adult.

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If the child is tried as an adult, the sentence can go up to life imprisonment, but if the child is tried by the board as a juvenile, the maximum sentence can only be three years in a special home.

What was the case before the Supreme Court?

In September 2017, a Class 2 student of a prominent school in Gurugram was found murdered inside the school washroom. Haryana Police arrested a conductor of a school bus for the murder and claimed that he had confessed to the crime. However, the CBI, which took over the investigation, arrested a student of Class 11 at the school for the murder.

In December 2017, the JJB decided to treat the accused as an adult. In October 2018, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the JJB to make a fresh assessment of whether the accused should be treated as an adult or a juvenile. Both the victim’s father and the CBI challenged the High Court’s decision before the Supreme Court.

In November 2018, the apex court ordered a status quo in the case and dismissed the petitions on July 13 this year. It had left it “to the discretion of the Board or the psychologist who may be consulted as to whether any fresh examination would be of any relevance/assistance”.

The accused has remained in an observation home since his arrest by the CBI.

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In absence of any guidelines on making the assessment, how does the JJB take a call on whether to try the child as an adult?

The Supreme Court said on July 13 that while considering a child as an adult, one should look at his or her physical maturity, cognitive abilities, and social and emotional competencies. It rejected the view that if the child has the mental capacity to commit the offence, then he automatically has the capacity to understand the consequences of the offence as well.

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The “consequences” mentioned in Section 15 of the Act would not just be confined to the immediate consequence, “but it would also take within its ambit the consequences which may fall upon not only the victim as a result of the assault, but also on the family of the victim, on the child, his family, and that too not only immediate consequences but also the far-reaching consequences in future,” the court said.

The court also said that children may be geared towards instant gratification, and may not be able to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. “They are also more likely to be influenced by emotion rather than reason,” it said.

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In a separate case in May of this year, six people, including five minors, were accused of gang-raping a teenager at Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills. The JJB on September 30 held that four of the five minors would be tried as adults, while the fifth would continue to be tried as a juvenile.

The order was made after a JJB member and psychologist from the Institute of Mental Health in Hyderabad interacted separately with the five minors to assess their mental and physical capacity to commit the crime and their ability to understand its consequences. They also assessed the circumstances in which they allegedly committed the crime.

First published on: 18-10-2022 at 18:27 IST
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