While hearing appeals against the controversial Bombay High Court judgment that held that "skin-to-skin" contact was necessary to invoke ‘sexual assault’ under Section 7 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), the Supreme Court today directed its Legal Services Committee to appoint a lawyer for the accused in the case.
The Bench of Justices UU Lalit and Ajay Rastogi called for any lawyer on the Supreme Court panel as well as an Advocate-on-Record to be appointed to represent the accused.
The Court was hearing petitions filed by Attorney General KK Venugopal, State of Maharashtra and the National Commission for Women (NCW) against the January 19 judgment passed by the High Court, which held that pressing the breast of a 12-year-old child without removing her top will not fall within the definition of ‘sexual assault’.
Today, AG Venugopal submitted,
"I was compelled to file this petition...This is an outrageous order...
This would mean someone can wear a surgical glove and exploit a child and get away scot free. The accused tried to bring down the salwar and even then bail was granted. This would be a precedent on magistrates in Maharashtra. Better appreciation would be needed for the definition of sexual assault."
He also pointed out that there were 43,000 offences registered under the POCSO Act in the last one year.
The Court then noted that though Senior Advocate Siddhartha Dave was appointed as amicus curiae in the case, there was no one representing the accused. It thus ordered,
"Service of show cause notice is complete in all matters. However, none appears on behalf of accused. By August 6, Sr Adv Dave has been appointed as the amicus curiae. Since accused is not represented, we direct Supreme Court Legal Services Committee to make available any lawyer with the Supreme Court panel and an AoR on behalf of the accused. Let the papers be served upon committee today itself."
The matter will be next heard on September 14.
The High Court had on January 19 ruled that pressing the breast of a 12-year-old child without removing her clothes will only fall within the definition of outraging the modesty of a woman under Section 354 of Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Whereas the punishment for sexual assault under Section 8 of the POCSO Act is imprisonment of 3-5 years, the punishment under Section 354 of IPC is imprisonment of 1-5 years.
The Bombay High Court had opined that considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence, stricter proof and serious allegations are required. It also observed that the punishment for an offence should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.
The apex court had stayed the controversial judgment on January 27 this year, after AG Venugopal termed it as a "very disturbing conclusion."