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Age Verification Of Juveniles Should Be Completed In 15 Days: Delhi HC

 

In a welcome, wonderful and wise judgment titled “Court on its own motion v State” in CRL.REF. 1/2020 that was pronounced on October 27, 2021 and then finally released on October 29, 2021, the Delhi High Court has ordered that investigating officers probing offences committed by juveniles should obtain documents related to age proof and ensure that the ossification test for determination of age is done within 15 days from the date the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) issues such directions. It must be mentioned here that this remarkable, rational, robust and refreshing judgment was passed by a Bench of Delhi High Court comprising of Justice Siddharth Mridul and Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani. It also deserves mentioning here that the Court also very rightly directed education institutions and other authorities to cooperate and give priority to the request made by investigating officers for verification of age of juvenile accused which is perfectly in order also as this alone will serve the true purpose of justice by ensuring that the investigation is completed well in time and the trial also starts at the earliest.

To start with, the Bench first and foremost states in para 1 that, “In para 16 of order dated 29.09.2021, this court had passed the following directions :

“i. In all cases alleging petty offences against children/juveniles, where the inquiry has been pending and remains inconclusive for longer than 01 year, regardless of whether the subject child/juvenile has been produced before the JJB, all such inquiries shall stand terminated with immediate effect; a formal order closing all such matters shall be passed by the JJBs in each file within 02 (two) weeks from the date of this order; and any children/juveniles detained in relation to such inquiries, shall be released immediately without waiting for recording the formal orders. In issuing this direction we take note of the fact that when a report/final report is filed alleging a petty offence, it is the State’s own case, that the subject is a child or juvenile. We are passing these directions ex debito justiciae, to correct an error in the judicial dispensation, since we believe there is no justification in keeping such matters pending any longer;

ii. Insofar as cases against children/juveniles who are alleged to have committed petty offences, where inquiries are pending for between 06 months and 01 year, the State is directed to apprise this court of the number of such cases pending in each JJB in Delhi along with the date of institution of the inquiry and the date of first production (if any) in each case, within 10 (ten) days from the date of this order, so that further necessary directions in that behalf may be passed by this court.””

For sake of information, the Bench then puts forth in para 2 that, “In compliance of the directions contained in para 16(i) of order dated 29.09.2021 extracted above, Ms. Nandita Rao, learned Additional Standing Counsel (Criminal) appearing for the State, has placed on record certain documents vidé Index No. 869725 dated 26.10.2021 indicating the status of cases as referred to above in our order dated 29.09.2021, in all 06 Juvenile Justice Boards (‘JJBs’) in Delhi by way of tabulated summaries. Furthermore, Ms. Rao has also handed-up in court an additional tabulated summary relating to JJB-II, Delhi Gate, New Delhi which gives the status of pendency of cases as of today 27.10.2021.”

Of course, the Bench then envisages in para 3 that, “We are informed that as of date, only 19 inquiries relating to petty offences against children/juveniles are pending before JJB-II, while all such inquiries pending before other JJBs either stand closed; or it transpired that there were no such inquiries pending before such Boards.”

Adding more to it, the Bench then enunciates in para 4 that, “Insofar as the 19 cases pending before JJB-II are concerned, Ms. Rao informs us that there are specific reasons for which these inquiries are yet to be closed, details of which are contained in the tabulated summary. Let the tabulated summaries relating to JJB-II as updated to 27.10.2021 be filed on record. In any case, Ms. Rao assures the court that these 19 inquiries will also be closed within the next few weeks.”

While apprising of the latest situation, the Bench then lays bare in para 5 that, “Accordingly, going by the number of inquiries indicated in the tabulated summaries relating to the various JJBs in Delhi, it transpires that according to the State, a total of 913 inquiries alleging petty offences against children/juveniles stand closed as of 27.10.2021.”

Furthermore, the Bench then points out in para 6 that, “Insofar as the directions contained in para 16(ii) of order dated 29.09.2021 extracted above are concerned, Ms. Rao seeks further time to furnish to the court details of the number of inquiries alleging petty offences against the children/juveniles pending for a period between 06 months and 01 year, along with the date of first production, if any. Furthermore, Ms. Rao submits that the rehabilitation plans/individual childcare plans in relation to these juveniles would also be furnished within this timeframe.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then states in para 7 that, “Ms. Anu Grover Baliga, learned Secretary, DHCLSC who is assisting the court in the matter further suggests that since the first and most significant point of delay in disposal of inquiries is that no timeframe has been stipulated under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Production of Children) Act, 2015 or Model Rules, 2016 for completing the process of age-determination of juveniles, this court may lay-down timeframes within which the age-determination process ought to be completed. Ms. Baliga submits that it is common for an Investigating Officer to take substantial time to collect documents relating to proof of age; and even longer to get an ossification test conducted if directed by a JJB. She suggests that a timeframe of 02 weeks be stipulated by this court for each of the said two stages/processes of age-determination. She points-out that at present S.O. No.68/2017 dated 17.11.2017 issued by the Commissioner of Police stipulates a period of 30 days for determination of age of a child reckoned from the date of making of the application before CWC/JJB. We are informed that this timeline of 30 days was in fact contained in Rule 12 of the earlier Juvenile Justice (Care and Production of Children) Rules, 2007; which timeline is however missing in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Production of Children) Act 2015 and in the Rules framed thereunder.”

Be it noted, the Bench then crucially notes in para 8 that, “Mr. H.S. Phoolka, learned Senior Counsel/Amicus Curiae appearing in the matter has further drawn our attention to the following two aspects:

(a) That though a sizeable corpus is available in the Juvenile Justice Fund set-up under section 105 of the JJ Act, it appears no significant sum has been disbursed for the intended purposes over the past several years;

(b)That there was a proposal to set-up 11 JJBs for a territory as large as Delhi, which at present has only 06 JJBs, though it has 11 judicial districts.”

As a corollary, the Bench then discloses in para 9 that, “In view of the above, it is Mr. Phoolka’s suggestion that information be called from the State about the quantum of funds allocated and those disbursed from the Juvenile Justice Fund; and to also seek an update on the timeframe as regards setting-up of more JJBs to cater to the increasing requirements of Delhi.”

Graciously enough, the Bench then hastens to add in para 10 that, “We have heard learned counsel appearing for the parties at length. We have also given our serious consideration to the suggestions made by Ms. Rao, Ms. Baliga, as well as Mr. Phoolka.”

Most significantly and also most remarkably, what must capture the maximum eyeballs as it forms the backbone of this learned, laudable, latest and landmark judgment is then laid bare in para 11 wherein it is put forth quite aptly that, “Upon considering the various submissions, at this stage, we are persuaded to issue the following additional directions for further streamlining the process of inquiries relating to juveniles, for scrupulous compliance by all concerned authorities :

(a) In all cases pertaining to juveniles in conflict with law, regardless of the nature of offences alleged, upon directions issued by a JJB after production of a juvenile before it, the Investigating Officer of the case shall collect and file before the JJB requisite documents towards proof of age of the juvenile within 15 days from the date of issuance of such directions;

(b) In all cases pertaining to juveniles in conflict with law, regardless of the nature of offences alleged, upon directions issued by a JJB after production of a juvenile before it, the Investigating Officer of the case shall ensure that the ossification test in relation to the juvenile is completed, a report is obtained and filed before the JJB within 15 days from the date the ossification test is ordered by a JJB;

(c) In all cases pertaining to juveniles in conflict with law, regardless of the nature of offences alleged, the JJB shall ensure that the process of age-determination of the juvenile is completed within 15 days from the filing of documents relating to proof of age/ossification test report by the Investigating Officer, as the case may be;

(d) It is further directed that all persons/educational institutions/medical institutions/governmental authorities to whom a request is made by an Investigating Officer for providing documentation towards age-determination or for conducting ossification test on a juvenile, shall give priority, cooperate and undertake necessary procedures and processes to enable compliance with the time-lines set-out above.”

As we see, the Bench then directs in para 12 that, “We grant to the State 04 weeks’ time for furnishing the information as directed in para 16(ii) of order dated 29.09.2021 relating to inquiries for petty offences pending before all JJBs in Delhi between 06 months and 01 year, giving the number of such cases pending in each JJB in Delhi along with the date of institution of the inquiry and the date of first production of the juvenile, if any, in each case; and preferably also including the rehabilitation plan/individual care plan for each child/juvenile. It is further directed that data for each JJB be presented in the same/common format of the choosing of the State, so that the data is easily comprehensible and comparable as between various JJBs.”

What’s more, the Bench then further adds in para 13 that, “The State is further directed to apprise the court as to the quantum of money sanctioned and allocated for the Juvenile Justice Fund; and the quantum disbursed from the said fund, along with the purpose for which money was disbursed, as of 30.11.2021. (cf. Rule 83 of JJ Rules 2016).”

Not stopping here, the Bench then also adds in para 14 that, “The State is also directed to apprise the court as to the status of the proposal to increase the number of JJBs in the city, including the timelines proposed for the purpose.”

Finally, the Bench then concludes by holding that, “List for further consideration of the matter on 14.12.2021.”

In sum, we certainly have to keep our fingers crossed as this notable case is yet to be finally decided. But one thing is for sure: The extremely commendable directions that the Delhi High Court has issued in this notable judgment as laid bare in para 11 must be implemented forthwith in right earnest as this alone will serve the true purpose of justice. In other words, the age verification of juveniles must be completed within 15 days as directed by the Delhi High Court in this noteworthy judgment also! No doubt, all the educational institutions, medical institutions and government authorities also must accordingly cooperate in this direction meaningfully so that the age determination of the juvenile is completed within the stipulated time of 15 days. This is the crying need of the hour also!

Sanjeev Sirohi

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