On July 14, college student Sumit Pandey, 17 crashed his father’s SUV and landed 50 feet down a gorge in Powai, Mumbai. Though Pandey and his three friends in the car escaped with their lives, one suffered a broken arm while the others had several bruises.

Senior Inspector Rajendra Kulkarni of Park Site police station in Vikhroli, who is involved in the case, said that Pandey would be arrested after his college exams for driving without a licence in a rash and negligent manner that caused grievous injury.

Since Pandey’s father owned the vehicle, he too has been summoned by the police.

Parental duties

Kulkarni said that it was the “duty of parents” to prevent their children from landing in such situations, but he remained ambiguous on what charges could be made against the father.

One of the reasons behind Kulkarni’s ambiguity may be that unlike countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Singapore, the legal framework in India does not have any specific provisions on parental liability that hold parents or legal guardians responsible for certain illegal activities of their minor children, such as underage driving.

These laws work on the assumption that if minors are caught engaging in such illegal activities, it is because their parents have failed to exercise due control over them, and must be held accountable for the conduct of their wards.

Parental liability laws

The basic argument in favour of parental liability laws is that controlling juvenile crime can’t be left to the state alone. The parents also have a responsibility and the law reminds them of this by making them immediately answerable in certain juvenile offences.

Thus, when the police says it is the duty of parents to prevent children from landing in such situations, they are, in fact, creating a premise for the need to look at parental liability.

In the absence of such laws in India, prosecution of parents is rare. Even if they are prosecuted in cases like Pandey’s on the grounds that they own the vehicle and have a vicarious liability – like an employer might have if an employee commits a crime under his or her watch – proving the charge of causing or permitting the offence is difficult.

The more serious charge of abetment usually does not hold in such cases, as it requires evidence to show that the parent was conniving with the juvenile and was an accomplice in the crime, which is rarely the case.

Juvenile delinquency

However, even though the majority of parents do not directly connive in their child’s delinquency, in many cases their behaviour towards the child is an important reason behind it say those who work in the realm of child rights.

“Juveniles involved in cases like underage driving, drunken driving, cyber crime and drug abuse usually come from privileged backgrounds,” said Mathew Phillips, executive director, South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring. “The parents may furnish them financially, but are either too repressive, making the child rebel, or extremely lenient, allowing the child’s acts to go unnoticed.”

Lawyer and activist Roma Bhagat recounted examples of parents who were proud that their children walked around with wads of cash and drove fancy cars while admitting that parental attitudes, a dismal lack of supervision and emotional neglect and abuse by parents created insecurities and vulnerabilities in children that could lead to offences.

Not feasible in India?

But given its population size and social attitudes, would parental liability laws work in India?

“Such laws require a basic, minimum standard of what constitutes parenting, which is nearly impossible to ascertain in a country like India with its vast socio-economic disparity,” said Nishit Kumar, head, communication and strategic initiatives at the Childline India Foundation.

But many feel that a basic, minimum parenting standard that defines what a parent needs to do for the child may just be the need of the hour – the law can always have provisions that take into account parental health, history and socio-economic conditions.

“Such a law may be especially useful to stem offences among children of the educated, middle and upper class parents,” said lawyer Atul Guleria.

Still, as Shahbaz Khan, programme coordinator at HAQ: Centre for Child Rights pointed out, no new law would work until the juvenile justice system is fortified by the state, ensuring speedy justice, reduced corruption and improved correctional facilities.

So, even though a parental liability law may be important in prosecuting parents and making them more accountable for the delinquency of their children, the challenge lies in filling the holes in the existing Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act in order to make room for any new legislation.