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How Supreme Court's Recent Judgment Expands Rights Of Widows Under Domestic Violence Act?

Paras Ahuja
27 May 2022 4:51 AM GMT
How Supreme Courts Recent Judgment Expands Rights Of Widows Under Domestic Violence Act?

In the recent judgment of Prabha Tyagi v. Kamlesh Devi, the Supreme Court of India has made certain important observations with respect to scope of relief obtainable under the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 [hereinafter, Act] as well as the persons entitled to obtain such relief. The court has progressively undertaken to expansively interpret the provisions of the Act so as to provide for a wider protection within the precincts of the social-welfare legislation. With its purposive interpretation of the legislative provisions, the Supreme Court has effectively made space for the rights of the widowed daughters-in-law within remedial functionality of the Act.

To briefly sum up, in this case the court was dealing with the question of maintainability of an application under Section 12 of the Act by a widow, after the death of her husband, against her mother-in-law and father-in-law, seeking residence order to reside in the property of her late husband, among other reliefs. The precise question before the court was whether an aggrieved woman who had never actually lived with the respondents in a shared household and has no subsisting domestic relationship between the complainant and the respondents [after the death of complainant's husband] at the time of the complaint is entitled to relief under of residence in the shared household under the Act.

Two important observations made by the court, which was specifically relevant to the issue of rights of a widow against the in-laws under the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, and have a pave a way for the better realization of rights of the widowed women are:

  1. The requirement of "subsisting domestic relationship" not necessary at the time of filing application under the Act

Section 12 of the Act gives right to the "aggrieved person" [or the Protection Officer or any other person on behalf of the aggrieved person] to apply to the Magistrate to present an application to him seeking one or more reliefs under the Act. Section 2(a) of the Act defines an aggrieved person as any woman who is, or has been, in a "domestic relationship" with the respondent and who alleges to have been subjected to any act of domestic violence by the respondent. Domestic relationship has been defined under Section 2(f) to mean a relationship between two persons who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household, when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family As clear from the reading of the above provisions, this requirement of "domestic relationship" is a mandatory pre-requisite for a person to be so classified as an aggrieved person under the Act, and thereby be entitled to claim the relief under Section 12.

However, as observed by the Supreme Court in Prabha Tyagi, it is not necessary that at the time of filing of an application by an aggrieved person, the domestic relationship should be subsisting. The court laid emphasis on the term "has been" under Section 2(a) and observed the need to interpret domestic relationship in a broad and expansive way to encompass not only subsisting domestic relationship but also past domestic relationship.

The following observations made by the court may be noted in this context:

"Even if an aggrieved person is not in a domestic relationship with the respondent in a shared household at the time of filing of an application under Section 12 of the D.V. Act but has at any point of time lived so or had the right to live and has been subjected to domestic violence or is later subjected to domestic violence on account of the domestic relationship, is entitled to file an application under Section 12 of the D.V."

This interpretation by the Supreme Court is truly welcome, as it prevents any circumvention or unintended limiting of the applicability of this social-welfare legislation to a class of persons, an in the present case of domestic violence by in-laws against the widow. This relief is specifically

  1. The Widowed Daughter-In-Law Can Enforce Her Right To Reside In 'Shared Household' Even If She Has Not Actually Lived There: The Concept Of Constructive Residence Under Section 17

The court interpreted the right to shared household under Section 17 to include the right to enforce residence in shared household even though the aggrieved person never actually resided in that place.

Section 17(1) provides the right of every woman to reside in the shared household:

"Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, every woman in a domestic relationship shall have the right to reside in the shared household, whether or not she has any right, title or beneficial interest in the same."

The court observed in context of Section 17 that if a woman in a domestic relationship seeks to enforce her right to reside in a shared household, irrespective of whether she has resided therein at all or not, then the said right can be enforced under Sub-Section (1) of Section 17 of the D.V. Act. The court held that, the expression 'right to reside in the shared household' would include not only actual residence but also constructive residence in the shared household i.e., right to reside in the shared household.

The court relied on the phraseology used under Section 17(2) to support its interpretation. Section 17(2) provides that: "The aggrieved person shall not be evicted or excluded from the shared household or any part of it by the respondent save in accordance with the procedure established by law."

The court laid emphasis on the terms, "evicted", which it interpreted to imply eviction from actual residence in the shared household; and "excluded", which it interpreted to imply exclusion from constructive residence i.e. the right to reside in the shared household, to support its wide interpretation of Section 17.

This interpretation would be particularly relevant in case of widows, who a lot of times reside in a different residence along with their husbands prior to his death, and are left in the state of destitution after the death of their husband. In such a case, the judgment of Prabha Tyagi bars the defence of "absence of actual residence in a shared household" to be used against a widow.

Supreme Court's progressive trajectory from "SK Batra" to "Satish Ahuja" to "Prabha Tyagi": From "wives" to "daughters-in-law" to "widowed daughters-in-law"

The judgments in the case of Prabha Tyagi can be seen as a progressive marker in the rights of widowed women, as enforceable against their in-laws. The importance and value that this judgments brings can be better understood when placed in context of the judicial trajectory of the interpretation of Section 17 of the Act and the class of persons who are entitled to the rights provided therein.

The Supreme Court in its 2006 judgment of SK Batra v. Smt. Taruna Batra, while interpreting the right of the wife under Section 17, to reside in a shared household [defined under Section 2(s) of the Act] held that the wife has no right to reside in the residence which is owned by her in-laws [i.e. members of husband's joint family] and in which the husband has no interest. The house must be the one in which either the aggrieved person or her husband or both have any interest/title. The judgment came as a major blow to rights to daughters-in-law to enforce the right to reside in a shared household against in-laws, leave alone the question of widows.

After thirteen years, the judgment in SK Batra was overruled in the case of Satish Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja. The court in Satish Ahuja, expansively interpreted "shared household" to include that household in which aggrieved person and husband may not have any legal interest/share. This interpretation expanded the operative scope of Section 17, enabling the daughters-in-law to raise claims of residence in a shared-household against their in-laws, irrespective of the fact that their husband has any share in the property or not. Court here held that the daughter-in-law can exercise the right to residence in shared household, which is entirely owned by the in-laws, uptil alternative accommodation [or rent] in lieu of the same, by her husband.

Now, about 2 years after Satish Ahuja, the court has further expanded the interpretation of the right of residence in a shared household, by invoking the concept of "constructive residence" and "non-requirement of a subsisting domestic relationship". Carrying forward the spirit of Satish Ahuja case, the judgment has made available the right of shared residence to the widowed women against their in-laws, rejecting the technical defenses of absence of actual residence, and subsisting relationship with the in-laws. The interpretation was certainly much-needed considering the practical-reality so as to prevent any circumvention around the scope of rights available in the Act on the ground of grammatical meaning of the provisions.

This progressive trajectory towards the true realization of the intent behind the Act is truly welcome.

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