Author: Sanya Singh 4th Year student, B.A., LL.B. (Hons), National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi
The judiciary is racing towards the liberal interpretation from the strict interpretation of the laws, statutes, and provisions and so on. The 21st century has seen revolutionary judgements such as declaring the Triple Talaq unconstitutional, unbanning the entry of women in Sabrimala Temple and abolishing Art. 377. However, it is crucial to see as to how far the judiciary can go while interpreting the laws made by the legislature. The case of Eera v. State has set a benchmark in this regard where the court has decided to stick with the strict interpretation, rather than to defeat the purpose of the statute while interpreting it liberally.
Keywords: Mental, Biological, Children, POCSO, Intention
The appellant Eera, an intellectually disabled person, aged 38 years, has been allegedly raped by her father. Her mother has represented her on the foundation that she has Cerebral Palsy (R. Hemiparesis) and, therefore, even though she is biologically 38 years of age, still her mind is approximately 6 – 8 years only. To prove the same, a certificate from a neuro physician and psychologist at the AIIMS was produced. It was also contended that due to her mental age, the trial should be commenced in the Special Courts established under the POCSO Act because of the congenial, friendly and comfortable atmosphere and the following proceeding should also be video graphed. When the mother realised that the trial court has failed to address the concern, the application was filed in the High Court under section 482 of the Cr.P.C.
The issue kept on revolving around the definition of the child given in S. 2(d) of the POCSO Act as the counsel for the appellant contended that the definition of the child should not be a conferred a restricted meaning to convey that the words “18 years” are singularly and exclusively associated with the biological or chronological age and has nothing to do with the real concept of “Age”. It was also claimed that the principle of purposive construction should be adopted and construction should be placed on the word ‘age’ to include biological and mental age compositely. The emphasis was on the departure from the chronological age by the legislature by putting stress on the capacity to understand the nature and consequences of the act.
The counsel for the respondent submitted that there is a distinction between mental age and chronological age. Had it been the intention of the Parliament not to make such a distinction, it would have included within the protective ambit of the definition about adults whose mental age is less than 18 years. If the term age is interpreted to mean mental age, it will lead to ambiguity, chaos and unwarranted delay in the proceedings and also it would affect potentiality to derail the trial and defeat the purpose of the Act. Further, it will also be against the manifest intention of the legislature.
In the majority judgment, Misra, J, relied on the ‘text and context’ of the provision, keeping in mind that a liberal interpretation would be more appropriate for legislation that is intended to advance social welfare or human rights. He also found that to interpret age, the inclusion of mental age would be tantamount to causing violence to the legislation by incorporating certain words to the definition and would create “anomalous situations without there being nay guidelines or statutory provisions.” POCSO requires us to assume that everyone below the chronological age of 18 years is incapable of consent, the same yardstick cannot be used for those with mental retardation, since this can range from mild to severe impairment.
Misra, J, also emphasised upon the availability of a procedure to determine the age of a child, as has been provided for under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. The victim’s age is frequently a fact in issue before trial courts and is resolved through reliance on evidence including birth records, school certificates and radiological tests. If mental age were to be a fact in issue, it would be similarly resolved by the court, with reliance perhaps being placed on medical expertise through Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
Further, in his concurring opinion, Nariman, J., engaged with the rule on a strict construction of criminal statutes and said that the reading of the Act as a whole makes it clear that the legislator intended to focus on children, as commonly understood, i.e. persons who are physically under the age of 18 years. Scrutiny of other statutes in pari materia would bring this into sharper focus. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, again brings into sharp focus the distinction between mentally ill persons and minors. Similarly, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 maintains the self-same distinction. This clarified that the legislature has been aware of this distinction when enacting POCSO, but had chosen not to include those with mental illness within the statutory ambit.
Thus, it would be sheer violence both to the intent and the language of Parliament if we were to read the word mental into Section 2(1) (d) of the 2012 Act. Given the fact that it is a beneficial/penal legislation, the Judges can extend it only as far as Parliament intended and not beyond that.
The decision given by the Judges is rational and reasonable. Sometimes even when it is possible that by virtue of interpretation, different meanings can be derived, but it becomes necessary to stick to the literal meaning as happened in the following case. Confusing mental age with biological age will lead to chaos whenever this similar or alike situation arises in the near future. Even if this time, had it been treated as an exceptional case, there is a total possibility that everyone those who are suffering from any mental disability will try to come under the ambit of children.
If it happens, then it will lead to two types of situation wherein first case, the purpose of having a different statute for children will get defeated wholly, and it will become more difficult as to differentiate between the mental age and insanity. Whereas in the second case, it is quite evident that every victim or the accused would like to have a friendly environment where they will not be stressed or questioned much regarding the incident. There is no doubt that it will broader the ambit but in a negative way where the misuse can be done more frequently and effectively. Nevertheless, it is also essential that the rights of the mentally challenged people also need to be protected in a certain way and furtherance, there can be some provisions proposed to be introduced in the Mental Healthcare Act, and any other statute which will suffice the reason. In this way, neither the intention of the legislature may get violated, nor the rights of the mentally challenged will be confused with that of the children.
Disclaimer: Kindly note that the views and opinions expressed are of the author, and not Law Colloquy.