The Supreme Court recently in Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja, Civil Appeal No. 2483 of 2020, has dictated major change in law relating to right of a daughter-in-law to stay in the matrimonial home. Hitherto, the field was governed by the Supreme Court’s judgment in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra (2006), wherein the Court had significantly read down the definition of ‘shared household’ provided under the PWDV Act, 2005, on the ground that its literal interpretation led to absurdity.
Shared household is defined under section 2 (s) of the Act as follows:
“(s) ‘shared household’ means a household where the person aggrieved lives or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship either singly or along with the respondent and includes such a household whether owned or tenanted either jointly by the aggrieved person and the respondent, or owned or tenanted by either of them in respect of which either the aggrieved person or the respondent or both jointly or singly have any right, title, interest or equity and includes such a household which may belong to the joint family of which the respondent is a member, irrespective of whether the respondent or the aggrieved person has any right, title or interest in the shared household”
The definition is obviously quite broad. The interesting feature of the definition is the use of ‘means’ in former part of the definition and ‘includes’ in the latter part. The Court held that the use of these two terms together renders the definition exhaustive of the particulars therein. This interpretation is in line with precedents. Going by the definition, shared household is the one-
- Where victim lives or has lived, and;
- In a domestic relationship with the respondent, and;
- Singly or jointly with the respondent, and;
- In which property, either the victim or the respondent has a sole/joint interest, or;
- The property ‘belongs’ to ‘joint family’ of which respondent is a member, whether or not they have a right in such property.
The terms such as ‘belong’ and ‘joint family’ have not been defined in the Act, but more on that later…
S.R. Batra noticed the problem with the definition in that it contains the term ‘respondent’ and not just ‘husband’. Any relative of husband can be a respondent in a DV case filed by a wife as long as there is domestic relationship. So, the definition potentially includes a household owned by any relative of husband, including parents or siblings, as long as there is domestic relationship with the aggrieved woman. More often than not, the respondents against whom relief of residence in sought in courts are parents of the husband or his siblings. Naturally, the position becomes really tricky for courts to balance rights of women on one hand and the proprietary rights of relatives of husbands who may actually have nothing to do with the matrimonial discord. S.R. Batra also noticed that such household can be a property where the woman lives or has lived at any point in time; thereby making any previous residence a potential shared household. In this light, the Court termed the PWDV Act a piece of clumsy drafting and the definition in particular leading to absurdity. The Court then read down the definition to confine to properties where husband of the aggrieved woman has a right. So, a property owned either or both parents of husband could not be termed a shared household.
The said position continued till it was changed in Satish Chander Ahuja in October, 2020.
The Court was faced with pertinent issues, chief among them being:
- Interpretation of ‘shared household’ definition in the Act, and;
- Juxtaposition of residence order passed by Magistrate under the Act with proceeding for eviction/possession filed in civil court with respect to the same household.
The Court, this time, went with the scheme of the Act and decided to opt for literal interpretation, thus, negating S.R. Batra. Essentially, the Court said that Act requires protection of a woman’s residence irrespective of the title to the property or interest in it, and it has to be given effect as such otherwise the purpose of the legislation would be set at naught. In order to alleviate the concern expressed in S.R. Batra regarding any past residence being called a shared household by an aggrieved woman, the Court held that the residence postulated under the Act has some degree of permanency incidental to domestic relationship and it will not include a mere fleeting residence. The words ‘at an stage has lived’ only indicate that she may not be residing at the household at the time of filing application under the Act. This essentially enjoins civil courts to try the issue of shared household, if raised, and then come with the finding regarding continuation or otherwise of the stay of woman in the household.
Magistrate’s order of residence v. Civil Court’s proceeding for eviction/possession
The second major question the judgment deals with is the effect of the residence order passed by a Magistrate under section 19 of the Act. Such an order is frequently passed in the interim under section 23, upon a prima facie satisfaction that the residence, present or previous, of the aggrieved woman, is a shared household. Such an order often restrains the respondent from evicting the woman without due process of law and thus protects the possession of the woman in the house.
Residence order of Magistrate to be considered by civil court
In the judgment at hand, the Court does recognise that a civil court can certainly order eviction of such a woman in face of title or any other interest in the property belonging to a person arrayed as respondent in the DV application. However, the Court adds a caveat in that the civil court has to bear in mind the residence order passed by the Magistrate under the Act and has also to give the same its ‘due weight’. The Court cites section 43 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 to buttress the said position.
The power of a civil court to order eviction of a woman having a residence order under the Act in her favour has been supported by section 145 Cr.P.C. which used the expression “due course of law”. Orders passed under section 145 Cr.P.C. are also made subject to other orders passed in ‘due course of law’. Such orders are generally understood in practice to be orders passed by courts of competent jurisdictions which in many cases, are civil courts. The Court also referred to certain judgments holding judgments of civil courts binding on the criminal courts and not vice versa.
(Note: in Evidence Law, however, a previous judgment does not bind a latter inquiry by another competent court unless expressly barred by some law!)
The terminology in section 145 Cr.P.C. is akin to the expression ‘procedure established by law’ occurring in section 17 of PWDV Act. Thus, drawing an analogy, the Court gave it the identical meaning and has made the residence orders under the Act subject to the orders of civil court.
The uncharted waters- household belonging to a joint family
Let us now come to the part which is not discussed in the judgment.
The discussion in the judgment does not relate to property ‘belonging to joint family of which respondent is a member’. One of the defences taken frequently in civil suits filed by the parent(s) of husband against their daughter-in-law is that the property is owned by joint family of which the husband is a member. Often, the parties are Hindus and often they relate joint family with Hindu Undivided Family which is a peculiarity of Hindu Law. It is probable that a husband who is a member of the HUF is also a coparcener having a right since birth in HUF property.
But, the definition states of ‘joint family’ and not HUF. Secondly, it uses the term ‘belong’ instead of ‘own’. So clearly, it is not exclusive to proprietary rights of an entity. This may gain significance when non-Hindu parties are involved in a lis where a woman claims a right of residence. A woman seeking such relief against her husband’s family practising, say Islam, cannot base her right on the plea of joint ownership of property by an entity akin to a Hindu joint family as there is no such concept in Muslim Law. The solution in such case would depend on the construction of the terms ‘belong’ and ‘joint family’ occurring in the definition quoted above.
It appears that the PWDV Act, 2005 is a secular legislation and therefore a definition cannot be construed with respect to particular religion otherwise it will not withstand test of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. Such intention is also clear from the fact of absence of the term ‘Hindu’ in ‘joint family’ mentioned in the definition. Such absence has to be regarded as deliberate on part of the legislature, consistent with the settled rules of interpretation. Also peculiar is the use of word ‘belong’ instead of stating about proprietary rights of the joint family as has been done in the former part of the definition with respect to right/title/interest of the aggrieved woman or the respondent. Thus, it appears that the definition in order to fully achieve its purpose has to be construed as involving properties inhabited by a family living jointly of which respondent is a member. This would take the property beyond the defence of proprietary rights and would then serve the purpose of the legislation.
A similar view was taken by the Delhi High Court judgment in Navneet Arora v. Surender Kaur (2014) wherein the Court distinguished the judgment in S.R. Batra on facts and ultimate widely construed the Act. The Court had held that the right to residence stipulated in the Act is not a proprietary right of the woman and is independent of right/interest of the respondent in the property if they had lived in the property as joint family. The judgment had also discussed the attributes of a joint family which will now be contested heavily in light of the changed law. A common kitchen was regarded an essential characteristic of a joint family for the benefit of ‘shared household’ to be taken. It needs to be seen, however, whether characteristics of a joint family can be common across religions or have to be considered on case-to-case basis.
Relevancy of previous judgments in Evidence Law- My take
This discussion is important as the Supreme Court not only holds the Magistrate’s orders relevant in civil proceedings for eviction/possession, but also says that civil courts will bear in mind their ‘’due weight’.
Relevant provisions of the Evidence Act are as follows:
‘Judgments of courts of justice when relevant
- Previous judgments relevant to bar a second suit or trial.— The existence of any judgment, order or decree which by law prevents any Court from taking cognizance of a suit or holding a trial, is a relevant fact when the question is whether such Court ought to take cognizance of such suit or to hold such trial.
- Relevancy of certain judgments in probate, etc., jurisdiction.— A final judgment, order or decree of a competent Court, in the exercise of probate, matrimonial, admiralty or insolvency jurisdiction, which confers upon or takes away from any person any legal character, or which declares any person to be entitled to any such character, or to be entitled to any specific thing, not as against any specified person but absolutely, is relevant when the existence of any such legal character, or the title of any such person to any such thing, is relevant.
Such judgment, order or decree is conclusive proof—
that any legal character which it confers accrued at the time when such judgment, order or decree came into operation;
that any legal character, to which it declares any such person to be entitled, accrued to that person at the time when such judgment, order or decree declares it to have accrued to that person;
that any legal character which it takes away from any such person ceased at the time from which such judgment, order or decree declared that it had ceased or should cease;
and that anything to which it declares any person to be so entitled was the property of that person at the time from which such judgment, order or decree declares that it had been or should be his property.
- Relevancy and effect of judgments,
orders or decrees, other than those mentioned in Section 41.—Judgments, orders or decrees other than those mentioned in Section 41, are relevant if they relate to matters of a public nature relevant to the enquiry; but such judgments, orders or decrees are not conclusive proof of that which they state.
- Judgments, etc., other than those mentioned in Sections 40 to 42, when relevant.—Judgments, orders or decrees, other than those mentioned in Sections 40, 41 and 42, are irrelevant, unless the existence of such judgment, order or decree, is a fact in issue, or is relevant under some other provision of this Act.
- Fraud or collusion in obtaining judgment, or incompetency of Court, may be proved.— Any party to a suit or other proceeding may show that any judgment, order or decree which is relevant under Section 40, 41 or 42, and which has been proved by the adverse party, was delivered by a Court not competent to deliver it, or was obtained by fraud or collusion.’
Section 41 states of certain judgments, orders, decrees of courts being relevant in judicial proceedings. A bare look at the provision reveals that-
- firstly, for a judgment/order/decree to be relevant in other proceeding, it has to be final;
- secondly, it has to relate to a particular jurisdictions such as matrimonial or admiralty.
Section 42 makes certain judgments, other than those covered in section 41 relevant, provided that they relate to matters of public nature, and such matters are also relevant to the inquiry at hand.
Section 43 makes all other judgments/orders/decrees irrelevant unless their existence is itself a fact in issue or a relevant fact in the proceeding at hand.
Now, a residence order, frequently passed pendente lite under PWDV Act, is not a final judgment/decree/order. Further, it is not passed in matrimonial jurisdiction, as also held by the Court in the judgment at hand. Such an order is also not on matters of public inquiry. Therefore, such an order cannot be held to be relevant in any of the provisions quoted above. Even if one tries to squeeze such an order within the ambit of section 43 by giving a go-by to the requirement of final nature of order as stated in section 41, it still needs to be ascertained by the concerned court whether existence of such an order is a fact in issue or a relevant fact under any other provision of the Evidence Act. These factors have not been considered by the Supreme Court in the judgment at hand. In my opinion and for the reasons stated above, a residence order passed during the pendency of DV proceeding is totally irrelevant in civil proceeding for eviction or possession. Further, a final judgment/order/decree concerning right of residence may be relevant depending on the requirements of section 43 being fulfilled and ascertained by the concerned civil court. I do not think that a straitjacket formula can be prescribed for all situations by making even the interim residence orders of Magistrates relevant for civil court proceeding and have them carry some ‘weight’.