NEW DELHI: As many as 43,000 offences registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in the last year, Attorney General of India KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Venugopal provided the information during the hearing of appeals against the controversial Bombay High Court judgment that held 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 Attorney-General said that it's an outrageous judgement so far as POCSO is concerned.
"The judge said skin to skin contact is required. 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 for magistrates in Maharashtra. Better appreciation would be needed for the definition of sexual assault. There are 43,000 POCSO offences in the last year," he said.
The Court was hearing petitions filed by the Attorney General, 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'.
A Bench of Justices UU Lalit and Ajay Rastogi directed its Legal Services Committee to appoint a lawyer to represent the accused in the case.
Since the accused are not being represented, the Bench directed SC Legal services Committee to make available services of any senior advocate on its panel along with any other Advocate-on-Record (AOR) to appear on behalf of the accused.
The matter will be next heard on September 14.
Earlier, the apex court-appointed senior advocate Siddharth Dave to assist it in the case.
On January 27, the top court had stayed the operation of the January 19 verdict of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court after the Attorney General had mentioned and said the order is "very disturbing" and will set a "dangerous precedent".
The Attorney General, NCW, Maharashtra, Youth Bar Association of India while challenging the High Court order in the apex court stated that such observations would have a wide impact on the entire society and public at large.
Seeking to set aside the High Court order, the appeals said that the observations made by the High Court were "unwarranted" and concern the modesty of a girl child.
One of the pleas pointed out that while passing the impugned judgment, the single judge recorded the name of the victim child. As per law, the names of victims of certain offences cannot be published. The pleas also sought to stay on the verdict as interim relief.
"Single Judge had made various observations, concerning the modesty of a girl child, which is not only derogatory and defamatory but the same are also in utter disregard to the applicable laws," Association's appeal added.
Justice Pushpa Ganediwala of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, while passing judgement on January 19, had held that there must be "skin to skin contact with sexual intent" for an act to be considered sexual assault. "Mere groping will not fall under the definition of sexual assault," the judge said.
The judge modified the order of a sessions court, which had held a 39-year-old man guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment.
As per the prosecution and the minor victim's testimony in court, in December 2016, the accused had taken the girl to his house in Nagpur on the pretext of giving her something to eat and then gripped her breast and attempted to remove her clothes.
However, the High Court said since he groped her without removing her clothes, the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault and, instead, constitutes the offence of outraging a woman's modesty under IPC section 354.
The High Court acquitted him under the POCSO Act while upholding his conviction under IPC section 354. Section 354 entails a minimum sentence of imprisonment for one year, sexual assault under the POCSO Act entails minimum imprisonment of three years.