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Home / News / India /  Skin-to-skin contact: SC stays Bombay HC order acquitting man under POCSO Act

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the order of the Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court, which acquitted a man under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, saying "groping a minor's breast without "skin-to-skin contact" cannot be termed as sexual assault".

A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian stayed the Bombay HC order after Attorney General K K Venugopal mentioned the matter.

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The SC's order came after Venugopal, on behalf of the Centre, mentioned before the Chief Justice that the Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court's verdict is "very disturbing" and will set a "dangerous precedent".

In the order, the Chief Justice noted, "The Attorney General brought to our notice that judgment of the Bombay High Court, Nagpur Bench dated January 19, 2021, in which the High Court has acquitted the accused under section 8 of POCSO Act on the ground that the accused had no sexual intent in committing the offence under POCSO because there was no direct physical contact i.e. skin to skin."

"The Attorney General submitted that order is unprecedented and likely to set a dangerous precedent. We permit the Attorney General to file an appropriate petition against the order. In the meantime, we stay the acquittal of the accused. Notice issued to accused returnable in two weeks," the order added.

The SC also issued notice to the Maharashtra government and permitted the AG to file an appeal against the 19 January verdict of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court.

The verdict said that groping a minor's breast without "skin to skin contact" cannot be termed as sexual assault as defined under the POCSO Act.

It said that since the man groped the child without removing her clothes the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault but it does constitute the offence of outraging a woman's modesty under IPC section 354.

The high court had modified the order of a sessions court, which had sentenced a 39-year-old man to three years of imprisonment for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.

It held that mere groping will not fall under the definition of sexual assault.

As per the prosecution and the minor victim's testimony in court, in December 2016, the accused, one Satish, had taken the girl to his house in Nagpur on the pretext of giving her something to eat.

Once there, he gripped her breast and attempted to remove her clothes, the High Court had recorded in her verdict.

However, 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 had held.

While IPC section 354 entails a minimum imprisonment for one year, sexual assault under the POCSO Act entails a minimum imprisonment of three years.

The sessions court had sentenced the man to three years of imprisonment for the offences under the POCSO Act as also under IPC section 354. The sentences were to run concurrently. The high court, however, acquitted him under the POCSO Act while upholding his conviction under IPC section 354.

"Considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence (under POCSO), in the opinion of this court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required," the high court said.

"The act of pressing of breast of the child aged 12 years, 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.

It further said that "the act of pressing breast can be a criminal force to a woman/ girl with the intention to outrage her modesty".

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, or does any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact without penetration is said to commit sexual assault".

The court, in its verdict, had held that this "physical contact" mentioned in the definition of sexual assault must be "skin to skin" or direct physical contact.

"Admittedly, it is not the case of the prosecution that the appellant removed her top and pressed her breast. As such, there is no direct physical contact i.e. skin to skin with sexual intent without penetration," the High Court had said.

With agency inputs

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