Behind the Curtains of the Juvenile Justice System in India

Among the development of many legislations and legal frameworks in the world of justice delivery system in India, the juvenile justice system has seen immense growth in terms of the processes involved and principles administered in ensuring a fruitful outcome for children and society alike. The juvenile justice system, what it is today is a brainchild of extensive research in the psychological field, studies involving social deviance, repercussions of the previous methodology, and the social liability imposed upon children and courts alike. While it may appear that the principal act Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act[1] caters to the needs and requirement of ‘children in need of care and protection’ and ‘children in conflict with the law’, it also ensures that the aggrieved party is delivered justice keeping in mind that children below the age of majority as defined by the act can be reformed and taught to become responsible members of the society.

The Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 is based on the principles of the developmental and reformative nature of children. One of the building blocks of this Act is the unbridled ‘presumption of innocence’. Children are considered to be little, defenceless, bodies capable of absorbing both, good and bad by everyone around the world because of their limited understanding, lack of maturity and their inability to distinguish between the right and wrong around them especially up until the age of five; this is true. They have great potential to be moulded and nurtured in a certain way based on what they are taught and exposed to. However, when it is observed that a child has committed a crime or something which in deviance to the law, order, and expectations of the society, an inevitable stigma becomes attached to them. They are no longer seen as ‘innocent children’ and are the first ones to test the ‘trial’ projected by society.

The Juvenile Justice Act, 1986[2] faced many criticisms due to the same reason. It was pointed out that factors such as apathy, ignorance, irregularity, and awareness of law are endemic in the functioning of the juvenile justice system.[3] The fixed nature of these factors was the leading cause of increased stigma along with the appointment of magistrates with no background in child psychology or psychology in general. Where the aim was to help reform children and help them become responsible members of the society who contribute positively to its development, the constant belittling and reprimanding called for serious intervention and protest by activists and psychologists.

Various ‘homes’ and reformatory centres established by the state were referred to as jails by parents, guardians, and officials working in the institutions.[4] Even the layout and ambience of those homes resembled a prison. Helping the juveniles realise their fault and correcting them was of utmost importance but it was later understood that chastising children or belittling their dignity was not the ideal way to reform their developing character. What was needed was to understand the psychology, the source of the idea to commit a crime and the general demeanour of the child in addition to formal help by professionals and punishment of some sort which might demotivate the child to deviate from the law but something which is in accordance with the requirements of the developing child. Techniques involving degradation of self-esteem and holding the child responsible for any other act other than the crime is not only bad for the juvenile’s mental health and development but it is also against the ‘right to life and personal liberty’[5]. The right to life includes the right to live with dignity and children are no exceptions to this. Moreover, the Government of India has acceded to conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 11th December 1992 which made it binding on India once it was ratified.[6]

While the methodology has improved over the years, it must be noted that misconceptions and ignorance still prevail in a newer form. Better healthcare, compact judicial procedures, and qualified judges have worked in the best interest of children. However, as far as misconceptions and social stigma are concerned, they can only be alleviated when people are aware of the law and the contributing negative factors that go into making a child, a delinquent. The juvenile justice system only scored attention after 1986. Hardly any attention was paid to legal procedures followed in the adjudication of matters involving children in conflict with the law.[7] With the advent of the Juvenile Justice Act in 1986, the issue of unprotected, abandoned ad delinquents was taken seriously. However, this was repealed and replaced by Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 which has a few major changes that have improved the justice delivery system.

With the former Act in force, it was very common for procedures to drag on for a lengthy period to the extent where the accused would attain the age of majority and would be a full-grown adult when the trial was finally over. In such scenarios, it was difficult to decide the punishment and the procedure involved in handling the convicted adult for a crime he/she committed as a juvenile. It hardly seemed fair that the convicted adult would be placed in a reform home among children who were in dire need of a change. Moreover, the convict could not be punished like an adult due to the Doctrine of Ex-Post Facto[8] which states that the accused should be tried and punished if convicted as per the laws in force on the day of the commission of the crime. In addition to this, the provision of rehabilitating children with a clean slate, i.e., children beginning their lives with a new identity meant that the heinous crimes committed by them would be forgotten and they would be given a second opportunity to re-establish themselves. However, this provision denies justice to the aggrieved party as their loss could not be compensated in any way, and with the ‘child in conflict with law’ being set free, it just threw the function of delivering justice off the tables.

The new Act took care of this lacunae and the principle of ‘fresh start’ was eradicated for juveniles between the ages 16-18 years. After, the widespread protest against the way in which the juvenile was tried in the Nirbhaya Rape case[9], a decision was taken to try minors above the age of 16 years and below 18 years as adults based on the understanding that adequate understanding and development of morals have already taken place in an individual that age. Crimes of heinous nature such as rape and murder not only impact the victim but also sabotages the peace and integrity of the society. The influence and gravity of such acts are felt by each and every member of the society and it can be assessed from various studies and developmental experiments that a teenager, especially above the age of sixteen is very much capable of understanding and assessing the gravity of the case. Such crimes cannot be forgotten and leave a lasting impact on everyone. A person indulging in such an act cannot be considered to be ‘innocent’ in any way, shape, or form who derives pleasure from violating another person’s dignity, integrity, peace, and stability.

Supplementing the changes, the Juvenile Justice Act not only describes the procedure followed to try a delinquent committing crime mentioned in the Indian Penal Code but also ensures protection of abandoned children, children with unsuitable guardians and other offences against children as mentioned under POCSO[10]. Moreover, special courts for children known as the ‘children’s court’ are established to deal with matters pertaining to children and offences committed by them and against them. The jurisdiction where such courts don’t exist lies with the sessions court.[11] The case is presided over by a learned magistrate who is sensitive to the issue and is capable of delivering just decisions. The philosophy behind the act was to enable the betterment of children and promote independence and means of subsistence with dignity among children by walking on the right track.

Children who could not be taken care of by their parents or guardians were looked after as children of the state and were ensured fundamental rights as citizens and children by the courts and institutions established by the state. Children of such nature must be taken care of and taught to distinguish between right and wrong so that they don’t grow into hardened criminals in the absence of guidance. There are various leading studies that education does, in fact, play a crucial role in shaping an individual. Apart from enhancing the literacy level, it helps children integrate into society much more effectively and focuses their unbound energy into doing something creative and securing a brighter future.

Children of educated and aware parents and guardians have a much better chance of being guided well so the provision of right to education must seep into the grassroots levels to bring a massive change in the near future. While provisions are formulated on paper, implementation is also of utmost importance by means of an awareness campaign by the government and citizens alike to transform the nation.

Justice is not limited to mere law-making and legislations, it needs an active group of aware and sensitive citizens, leaders, and followers to achieve the justice deserved and desired by the nation.

[1] The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (Act 2 of 2016)

[2] The Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 (Act 53 of 1986)

[3] Ved Kumari, “Current Issues in Juvenile Justice in India” 41 Journal of the Indian Law Institute 393 (1999)

[4] Ved Kumari, “Current Issues in Juvenile Justice in India” 41 Journal of the Indian Law Institute 393 (1999)

[5] The Constitution of India, art.21

[6] UN General Assembly, Convention on Rights of the Child, GA Res 44/25, GAOR, UN Treaty Series /Res 44/25 (September 2, 1990)

[7] Juvenile Justice System in India: A Legal Framework, Chapter 1, available at: (last visited on June 6th, 2020)

[8] The Constitution of India, art.20, cl. 1

[9] Mukesh and Anr. vs. State For NCT of Delhi and Ors., (2017) 6 SCC 1

[10] Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (Act 32 of 2012)

[11] The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (Act 2 of 2016) s.20

Anvita Priyadarshi from Symbiosis Law School, Noida

“I look forward to learn and discover the field of law.”

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