On 16-18 March 2013, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, National Law University – Delhi, Penal Reform International, UNICEF India, Save the Children, India, and Child Fund, India, hosted an International Colloquium on Juvenile Justice in Delhi.
This was the first time there had been a gathering of international experts on the subject of Juvenile Justice in India, and the Colloquium brought together 60 participants from 13 countries and India, representing statutory bodies, academics, lawyers and practitioners.
Justice Kabir opened the Colloquium by voicing concern over the knee-jerk reactions following the declaration of one of the accused in the December 2012 gang rape case as a juvenile. He reminded the country that India has ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and therefore has an obligation to uphold all rights for all children, including those who come in conflict with the law. ‘We must allow law to take its due course’, Justice Kabir emphasised. Justice Lokur said that the Colloquium was timely and there was a need to understand the principles and provisions of juvenile justice.
Some of the speakers at the Colloquium included, Justice Amar Saran of the Allahabad High Court, Justice Ravindra Bhat of the Delhi High Court, Penal Reform International’s Nikhil Roy, Prof. Jaap E Doek, Former Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child; Mr. Cedric Foussard, Director, International Juvenile Justice Observatory; Dr. Ann Skelton from the University of Pretoria, who was part of the drafting Committee of the Child Justice Act of South Africa, and Ms. Kathi L. Grasso from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), US Department of Justice Washington DC.
Coinciding with the discussions on the various legal ages for children and also demands for lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, a study was presented by Dr. Kimberly Ambrose of USA, which has produced forensic evidence on brain development and been used by the Supreme Court of the US to pronounce certain judgments concerning young offenders. The evidence shows that the brain does not develop fully until the age of 20 years and this explains the impulsive and risk taking behavior among young people. The Colloquium agreed that the age of majority of a child or juvenile should be 18 years, as it currently is in India, and lowering it would be a regressive step.
The most important point emphasised by all speakers was the need to ensure that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is not confused with the ongoing debate in India on the age of sexual consent, as the two provisions are distinct concepts, although both have their basis in the principle of child protection. While the age of criminal responsibility is to protect the rights of a juvenile offender, the age of sexual consent is to ensure that young people are not criminalised for consensual sexual activity.
It was agreed that there remains a lot of ambiguity when it comes to implementation of juvenile justice standards in national contexts and, in many countries, the tools and means to implement effective juvenile justice systems are missing. Monitoring is weak, leading to inadequacies in the system. Justice Ravindra Bhat suggested that the government should invest in regular audit of the juvenile justice system just as it invests in tax audits.
The three-day event ended on the note that across the world, knee-jerk reactions in some cases have led the politicians and policy-makers to change the law to the detriment of both the young offender and the victims. In the US for example, research shows that stringent punishment or treatment of a juvenile has led to non-reporting or covering up of offences by young people aged 16-18 years. There was an agreement that crime prevention was more cost-effective, as shown by research collated by the International Juvenile Justice Observatory in Brussels.
The Colloquium was made possible with the financial assistance of the UK Government and Cordaid. The Colloquium was inaugurated by the Chief Justice of India, Justice Altamas Kabir. The guest of Honour for the event was Justice Madan Lokur of the Supreme Court of India.
Some participants at the conference were also able to visit a de-addiction centre in Delhi, which provides services for a number of children addicted to drugs. Read a blog about the visit here.
Media coverage from the event includes: