The Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2012 was passed by both Houses of Parliament on May 22. The legislation defines various types of sexual offences against children and provides penalties for such acts. According to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, about 53% of the children interviewed reported some form of sexual abuse. The law has been viewed as a welcome step by most activists since it is gender neutral (both male and female children are covered), it clearly defines the offences and includes some child friendly procedures for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and trial of offences. However, the issue of age of consent has generated some controversy. Age of consent refers to the age at which a person is considered to be capable of legally giving informed consent to sexual acts with another person. Before this law was passed, the age of consent was considered to be 16 years (except if the woman was married to the accused, in which case it may be lower). Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 states that any sexual intercourse with a woman who is below the age of 16 years is considered to be “rape”. The consent of the person is irrelevant. This post provides a snapshot of the key provisions of the Act, the debate surrounding the controversial provision and a comparison of the related law in other countries. Key provisions of the Act
Debate over the age of consent After introduction, the Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development. The Committee submitted its report on December 21, 2011 (see here and here for PRS Bill Summary and Standing Committee Summary, respectively). Taking into account the recommendations of the Standing Committee, the Parliament decided to amend certain provisions of the Bill before passing it. The Bill stated that if a person is accused of “sexual assault” or “penetrative sexual assault” of a child between 16 and 18 years of age, it would be considered whether the consent of the child was taken by the accused. This provision was deleted from the Bill that was passed. The Bill (as passed) states that any person below the age of 18 years shall be considered a child. It prohibits a person from engaging in any type of sexual activity with a child. However, the implication of this law is not clear in cases where both parties are below 18 years (see here and here for debate on the Bill in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha). The increase in the age of consent to 18 years sparked a debate among experts and activists. Proponents of increasing the age of consent argued that if a victim is between 16 and 18 years of age, the focus of a sexual assault case would be on proving whether he or she consented to the act or not. The entire trial process including cross-examination of the victim would focus on the conduct of the victim rather than that of the accused (see here and here). Opponents of increasing the age of consent pointed out that since this Act criminalises any sexual activity with persons under the age of 18 years (even if consensual), the police may misuse it to harass young couples or parents may use this law to control older children’s sexual behaviour (see here and here). International comparison In most countries, the age of consent varies between 13 and 18 years. The table below lists the age of consent and the corresponding law in some selected countries.
Age of consent
|US||Varies from state to state between 16 and 18 years. In some states, the difference in age between the two parties is taken into account. This can vary between 2-4 years.||Different state laws|
|UK||16 years||Sexual Offences Act, 2003|
|Germany||14 years (16 years if the accused is a person responsible for the child’s upbringing, education or care).||German Criminal Code|
|France||15 years||French Criminal Code|
|Sweden||15 years (18 years if the child is the accused person’s offspring or he is responsible for upbringing of the child).||Swedish Penal Code|
|Malaysia||16 years for both males and females.||Malaysian Penal Code; Child Act 2001|
|China||No information about consent. Sex with a girl below 14 years is considered rape. Sodomy of a child (male or female) below 14 years is an offence.||Criminal Law of China, 1997|
|Canada||16 years||Criminal Code of Canada|
|Brazil||14 years||Brazilian Penal Code 2009|
|Australia||Varies between 16 and 17 years among different states and territorial jurisdictions. In two states, a person may engage in sexual activity with a minor if he is two years older than the child. In such cases the child has to be at least 10 years old.||Australian Criminal laws|
|India||18 years.||Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act, 2012|
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.