SC agrees to hear NCW's plea against Bombay HC verdict
(Sourced from PTI)
The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear a plea challenging the Bombay High Court's verdict which said that groping a minor's breast without "skin to skin contact" cannot be termed as sexual assault as defined under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde has issued a notice to Maharashtra Government seeking its response.
The plea was filed by the National Commission for Women (NCW). The apex court had on January 27 stayed the verdict after Attorney-General KK Venugopal mentioned the matter before it and said that the judgment was unprecedented and was likely to set a dangerous precedent.
The bench, also comprising Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, issued a notice to the accused in the case on a separate plea filed by Maharashtra Government against the HC verdict. The bench asked Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for NCW, as to why it should entertain a separate plea when SC has already stayed the HC's verdict and the accused is in jail.
The other two petitioners, the Youth Bar Association of India and Bharatiya Stree Shakti, withdrew their pleas against the January 19 verdict of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court.
Luthra referred to the NCW Act provision and said that the statute provides that the commission should move the court for correction if any such issues come up. At the outset, Venugopal said that the HC verdict has already stayed and several new petitions have been filed in the matter. He said that notices be issued on new pleas filed against the HC order.
In its plea filed in the apex court, the NCW said that if such a perverse interpretation of physical contact is allowed, it will adversely impact the basic rights of women, who are victims of sexual offenses in society. "It will undermine the beneficial statutory safeguards prescribed under various legislations aimed at protecting the interest of women," the plea added.
As per the prosecution and the minor victim's testimony in the court, in December 2016, the accused, a 39-year-old man, had taken the 12-year-old girl to his house in Nagpur on the pretext of giving her something to eat. Once there, he groped her breast and attempted to remove her clothes, the HC had recorded in the verdict.
The HC had modified the order of a Sessions Court, which had sentenced the man to three years of imprisonment for sexually assaulting the girl. It held that since the accused groped her without removing her clothes, the offense cannot be termed as sexual assault and, instead, constitutes the offense of outraging a woman's modesty under IPC Section 354.
While IPC Section 354 entails minimum imprisonment for one year, sexual assault under the POCSO Act entails minimum imprisonment of three years. The Sessions Court had sentenced the man to three years of imprisonment for the offenses under the POCSO Act as also under section 354 of the IPC. The sentences were to run concurrently.
The HC acquitted the accused under the POCSO Act while upholding his conviction under IPC Section 354. "The act of pressing of breast of the child, in the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside the top and pressed her breast, would not fall in the definition of sexual assault," it said.
The POCSO Act defines sexual assault as when someone with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus, or breast of the child or makes the child touch the vagina, penis, anus, or breast of such person or any other person. It also includes any other act with sexual intent that involves physical contact without penetration.