A Full Bench of the Bombay High Court comprising Mohit Shah C.J, M. S Sanklecha and M.S Sonak, JJ, delivered a noteworthy judgment on daughter’s right to ancestral property in a joint HUF on 14th August, 2014. The Bench was constituted on a reference by Single Judge R.G. Ketkar J. who doubted the correctness of the decision of the Division Bench in the case of Vaishali S. Ganorkar & others v. Satish Keshavrao Ganorkar & others,.
Prior to the enactment of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 (hereinafter the Amendment Act), the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (hereinafter the Principal Act) did not provide any rights to daughters in respect of partition of property or the right to demand partition or claim shares in the coparcenary property. A coparcener is a person who has equal rights in the undivided property of a HUF. The Amendment Act now entitles women to an interest in the HUF property by amending Section 6 of the Principal Act and makes a daughter a coparcener in her own right, thereby upholding the fundamental right to equality and non discrimination on the basis of gender enshrined in the Constitution.
In the current case the point of contention was not, therefore, whether daughters are also entitled to an interest in the HUF property like their male counterparts, which has been duly settled, but whether the Amendment Act has a prospective or retrospective effect, the determination of which will have a direct bearing on the controversial issue of whether daughters born before 2005 are also entitled to be coparceners in their own right in the same way that daughters born on or after 9 September 2005 are now entitled.
A Division Bench upheld the prospective operation of the Amendment Act in Vaishali S. Ganorkar v. Satish Keshavrao Ganorkar, which in effect disentitles all daughters born before 9 September 2005 to claim their equal interest in the Joint HUF governed under the Mitakshara law. Further, the Bench interpreted the amended section to mean that daughters born before 2005 would get rights in the coparcenary property only on the death of the father-coparcener on or after 9 September, 2005. This provision effectively leaves the daughters remediless if a male coparcener, in the interim, decides to dispose of the property by testament/will.
Disagreeing with the decision of the Division Bench, Single Judge R.G Ketkar J. held that the amended section has retrospective effect from the date of the enactment of the Principal Act and is applicable to all daughters who are born before or after 2005 as a daughter becomes a coparcener in her own right by virtue of her birth. The matter was thus referred by the Single Judge to the Full Bench in order to reconcile the differing opinions and reach a reasoned decision bound to impact the lives of millions in the country.
Although Hindu women were considered a part of the HUF under the Shastric/Customary Law for the purpose of maintenance, they did not have a right in the property and it transmitted only to male coparceners by way of survivorship. Today, modern thinking has slowly shaped society to accept equality of the genders which has thankfully seeped into the laws of intestate succession resulting in the Amending Act, 2005. However, the amended Section 6 has left ample scope to the courts for interpretation and this is precisely the critical space where equality needs to be reasoned and upheld. More than just seeing this issue through the lens of feminist movements for equality, the case throws light on the current trend of the courts in application of the rules of interpretation.
The Full Bench concurring with the opinion of the Single Judge stated “We agree with the Respondents that normally a statute should be construed on its plain meaning. However, when the plain reading of the provision is not very clear then, in that case, one has to apply an appropriate tool of interpretation to unearth the intent, object and purpose of the enactment. In such cases, particularly, in cases of socio-economic legislations like the one we are concerned with, we must apply the Mischief or Purposive Rule of interpretation to find out the true meaning of the Statute”. The Mischief Rule propounded in 1584 from Heydon’s case, essentially seeks to rectify the existing defect in the common law and thus allows interpretation to keep in tune with the changing social philosophies of the time.
Applying the Purposive Rule to this case, the Full Bench has determined the prospective v. retrospective operation of the Amendment Act. As is well established, the interpretation of statutes raises a presumption against retrospective operation of statues unless expressly or impliedly specified by the legislation itself, as it would result in the dire and chaotic consequence of unsettling already vested rights. However, the courts must not be restrained by the black letter of the law which subverts the justice and equality due to millions of daughters born before 9 September 2005.
The Court, to mete out justice, resorted to the application of an intermediary category known as ‘Retroactive Statute’ which does not operate backwards and does not take away vested rights, but successfully provides rights to those daughters who are alive at the time of the Amendment Act, irrespective of whether they were born before or after 2005. In case the coparcener has died before 2005, then the pre-amended law is applicable but by passing of the Amendment Act, all daughters who are alive ipso facto become coparceners, thus settling the interpretation of the amended Section 6. “The only requirement is that when an Act is being sought to be applied, the person concerned must be in existence/living. The Parliament has specifically used the word ‘on and from the commencement of Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005’ so as to ensure that rights which are already settled are not disturbed by virtue of person claiming as an heir to a daughter who had passed away before the Amendment Act came into force.”, the Court said.