Supreme Court: In an application filed under Section 9(2) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (“JJ Act”) requesting the Court to hold that the applicant/convict for committing offences under Sections 302, 342, 397, 449 read with 120-B and 34 of the Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) was a juvenile on the date of commission of the offence, the full bench of KM Joseph, Aniruddha Bose* and Hrishikesh Roy, JJ. declared that the date of birth of the convict as reflected in the certificate issued by his school is to be accepted for determining his age at the time of commission of the offence of which he has been convicted. Going by that certificate, his age at the time of commission of offence was 12 years and 6 months. Thus, he was a juvenile on the date of commission of offence for which he had been convicted, in terms of the provisions of the JJ Act. Further, said that this shall be deemed to be the true age of ‘Niranaram’, who was tried and convicted as ‘Narayan’.
The Court noted that the inquiring judge filed a report which confirmed that the convict was just 12 when he committed the crime, though the charge sheet said he was 20 years old when he took part in the crime. According to the birth certificates, the age of the convict on the date of commission of offence would have been 12 years and 6 months. Moreover, in certain other documents the convict’s age is shown to be different from that reflected in the said certificates. Further, the convict has been tried as Narayan and not Niranaram.
The Court examined the issue of the actual identity of the convict, that is he the same person who has been convicted and subsequently sentenced to death as ‘Narayan Chetanram Chaudhary’?
The Court noted that the convict in the writ petition has described himself as Narayan, son of Chetanram Chaudhary and the same name has been used to describe the convict in the present application. Thus, the Court found that he had used the name of Chetanram as his middle name at the time of his trial, which refers to his father’s name.
Further, after examining the Inquiry Report, the Court said that the Inquiring Judge had accepted the stand of the convict that Narayan and Niranaram are the same people.
The Court noted that in the review petition, the convict described himself as Narayan Chetanram Chaudhary. The filing date of the review petition is 31-10-2000, but the convict has been referred to as ‘Niranaram’ in the Mercy Petition.
The Court appreciated that a death row convict in prison for over 28 years would be under severe limitations in retracing his school records and other forms of age -proof. Thus, in absence of any contrary evidence, the Court accepted the findings of the Inquiry Report, that ‘Niranaram’ has to be said to be another name of ‘Narayan’
The Court noted that the convict has sought to establish his identity as ‘Niranaram’ relying on a series of documents where his father’s name has been shown as ‘Chetanram’. These include three documents originating from his school.
Considering the question regarding maintainability of the present application under Section 9(2) of the 2015 Act, the Court placed reliance on Hari Ram v. State of Rajasthan, (2009) 13 SCC 211, wherein it was held that claim of juvenility may be raised before any Court which shall be recognised at any stage, even after final disposal of the case. Thus, the Court said that a petition under Section 9(2) of the JJ Act contemplates statutory remedy, plea for which can be raised at any stage. Further, it opined that in a juvenility plea, if a writ petition is dismissed in limine, such order would not foreclose the option of an accused (or a convict) to make plea for juvenility under Section 9(2) of the JJ Act.
The next question is whether the course adopted by the Inquiring Judge was in terms of the provisions of the JJ Act, 2015 or not?
The Court said that it is apparent that the Inquiring Judge has conducted the inquiry typically as a fact-finding inquiry is conducted and has not followed the procedure of summons trial. But, as per Section 103(1) of the JJ Act, the prescription for following the procedure in summons cases is for the Juvenile Justice Board or the Child Welfare Committee while holding any inquiry under the JJ Act. Under Section 9(2) of the JJ Act, the Court also has been empowered to make an inquiry if the Court is of opinion that the person was the child on the date of the commission of offence.
Thus, the Court found no flaw in the procedure which has been adopted by the Inquiring Judge. Concerning the procedure for making an inquiry by the Court, it was opined that Section 9(2) of the JJ Act does not prescribe scrupulously following trial procedure, as stipulated in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
The Court further opined that in the event the Court, Board or the Committee is satisfied that the claimant on the date of offence was a juvenile, the dimension of gravity of the offence cannot be considered by the Court to reject the benefit granted to an accused or convict under the JJ Act. Further, agreed with the observations made in State (UT of J&K) v. Shubam Sangra, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1592 and Parag Bhati v. State of U.P., (2016) 12 SCC 744 that a casual or cavalier approach should not be taken in determining the age of the accused or convict on his plea of juvenility, but a decision against determination of juvenility ought not to be taken solely because offence involved is heinous or grave.
The Court said that the convict has already served more than 3 years of incarceration, and under the law as it prevailed at the time of commission of offence and under the JJ Act he cannot be subjected to capital punishment. In view of this finding, the Court invalidated the order sentencing the convict to death passed by the Additional Sessions Judge and subsequently confirmed by the High Court and by this Court Further, ordered for setting him free from the correctional home in which he remains imprisoned, as he has suffered imprisonment for more than 28 years, having regard to the provisions of Section 18 of the JJ Act
[Narayan Chetanram Chaudhary v. State of Maharashtra, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 340 , decided on 27-03-2023]