Spouse Can’t Be Punished For Contempt For Failing To Live With The Other, Violating Consent Order: SC [Read Judgment]

Spouse Can’t Be Punished For Contempt For Failing To Live With The Other, Violating Consent Order: SC [Read Judgment]

Even when a decree of conjugal rights is filed by a competent court of law in favour of one of the spouses, such a decree cannot be executed and the other spouse who is directed to resume the conjugal relations, cannot be forced to do so, the Bench said.

While setting aside a High Court order punishing a wife for contempt, the Supreme Court observed that, forcing a spouse to join the company of the other and on failing to do so punishing her in committing contempt of the court order that too by awarding maximum civil imprisonment in law, cannot be countenanced.

Relevant Factual Background

The first round of litigation, which started with the husband filing habeas corpus petition before the High Court, ended with a settlement. The High Court made the terms of settlement, part of its order and disposed of the petition.

As the wife failed to adhere to the settlement and did not comply with the Consent order, the husband filed Civil Contempt Petition in the High Court seeking execution of the consent terms and punishment to the appellant under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.  The High Court found the wife to be in contempt and awarded maximum punishment of six months civil imprisonment. The wife challenged this order before the Apex Court.

The Bench of Justice AK Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan, observed that the approach of the High Court was to insist the wife to adhere to the settlement terms even at that stage and on her refusing to do so it arrived at a finding that she had committed the contempt of the court order. “It is, thus, the stubborn attitude shown by the appellant during the hearing of the contempt petition which has weighed by the High Court. That, according to us, was not the correct approach for punishing the appellant for contempt of court. The contempt petition was filed by the respondent alleging that the appellant had not fulfilled her obligations under the consent terms and the directions given by the High court in this behalf. It was, thus, necessary for the High Court to discuss and consider, in the first instance, as to whether these allegations of the respondent were correct.”, the Bench said.

Cannot force a spouse to live with other

The Bench further observed: “The consent terms on which the parties settled the matter contained an important part of agreement, namely, both the parties decided to live together again. This happened in the proceedings which essentially related to the custody of child. No doubt, when the parties agreed to resume the matrimonial relations and decided to live again as husband and wife, the problem of custody of Pranav got automatically solved thereby as it brought about an ideal situation where Pranav could have the company of his both the parents. Unfortunately, this did not materialise.”

The Court further said: “In a case like this whether the High Court could force the appellant to join the company of the respondent and live with him, if he had decided for certain reasons not to do so? Even when a decree of conjugal rights is filed by a competent court of law in favour of one of the spouses, such a decree cannot be executed and the other spouse who is directed to resume the conjugal relations, cannot be forced to do so. It is a different matter that for not obeying such a decree, other consequences follow including right to the decree holder to seek divorce. When that is the position even in respect of a decree passed by competent court of law forcing the appellant to join the company of the respondent and on her failing to do so punishing her in committing contempt of the court’s order, that too by awarding maximum civil imprisonment in law cannot be countenanced.”

Bury the hatchet and have a new beginning

Justice Sikri concluded the judgment with these comments: “Life has problems. Parties have to understand those problems and to reflect on the reasons why these problems have arisen leading to such kind of disputes. Both the parties have also to reflect on the future and to make up their mind on that basis as to whether it would be in their interest, as well as in the interest of Pranav to bury the hatched and have a new beginning. We say no more.”

Read the Judgment Here