The Supreme Court broke new ground when it ruled on Thursday that a woman facing domestic violence has a right to reside in a ‘shared household’ even if it is owned or rented by her in-laws and the husband has no legal right in the property.
Here is why this is a landmark verdict in a country where instances of domestic violence galore while women suffer in silence due to social stigma and ignorance of law:
What does this verdict mean?
The judgment, delivered by a bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan, has held that an aggrieved woman has a right to reside in a house although she or her husband may not own the premises jointly or singly, or might have taken it on rent jointly or singly. It said the household may even belong to a joint-family or is rented by the woman’s in-laws but the complainant still has a right to reside in it if she has been living there after her marriage. It would also not matter if she has been compelled to move out after the discord since the house will still be treated as a ‘shared household’, entitling her to live in it once she files a complaint under the Domestic Violence Act.
What does this verdict change for women facing domestic violence?
In 2007, the Supreme Court had ruled that an aggrieved woman will have a right to reside in a house only when it is owned or tenanted by the husband. It said that if her in-laws own the house and the husband has no legal right in it, she cannot assert her right to live there. This judgment added it will create chaos if every household, where the woman has lived at any point of time after the marriage, is treated as a ‘shared household’ under the Act. This judgment restricted the right of a complainant while affording a pretext to the husband and in-laws to defy her right to residence in collusion by simply asking the husband to move out. The latest verdict by the three-judge bench overrules the 2007 judgment and gives an interpretation in favour of the women’s right to residence. It has said the 2007 judgment did not interpret the law correctly.
Why did the Supreme Court overrule the 2007 judgment?
The previous judgment by a two-judge bench was premised on an apprehension that if a ‘shared household’ meant each and every house where the complainant lived with her husband and in-laws, in a domestic relationship, this would lead to a chaotic situation and the woman can claim a right to live in any one or each one of such dwellings. But the three-member bench found this apprehension misplaced and interpretation of law based on incorrect understanding of the legislative intent. It noted that the Act has used the expression “at any stage has lived” in addition to “where the aggrieved person lives” so as to ensure that a victim’s right is not defeated by first throwing her out of her matrimonial home and then make an argument that she does not live in that house anymore.
What is a 'shared household' where a complainant can assert a right to residence?
The shared household, the court has now ruled, is the house where the complainant was either living at the time when application was filed or was living in the recent past but has now been excluded from the use or she is temporarily not there because of the adverse circumstances. The living of a woman in a household has to refer to a living which has some permanency. The court has said that mere fleeting or casual living at different places shall not make a shared household. The intention of the parties and the nature of living including the nature of household have to be looked into to find out as to whether the parties intended to treat the premises as shared household or not. And once satisfied that a particular house is a shared household, a court can grant an entitlement in favour of the woman of the right of residence under the shared household irrespective of her having any legal interest in the same or not.
What is the right a complainant has in a house under the Domestic Violence Act?
The Act does not give any title or proprietary rights in favour of the aggrieved person. It merely secures a ‘right of residence’ in the ‘shared household’ for the complainant. The statute makes sure that a woman, facing domestic violence, always has a roof on her head. It, therefore, provides to her a right to residence in a building where she has lived in a domestic relationship with her husband and his parents or siblings. The entire Scheme of the Act is to provide immediate relief to the aggrieved person with respect to the shared household where she lives or has lived. But it does not give her any right in the title of the property in question if her husband or she herself does not have a legal right otherwise.
Apart from a wife, can anyone else too claim a right to residence?
Yes. There can be other cases of domestic relationships such as an orphaned sister, or widowed mother, living in her brother's or son's house. Both are covered by the definition of domestic relationship under the law. In such a case too, if the widowed mother or sister is threatened with dispossession, they can secure a right to residence under the Act, notwithstanding exclusive ownership of the property by the son or brother.
What about the aged in-laws of the complainant?
The Supreme Court, in its verdict, has also clarified that the right to residence is not an indefeasible right of residence in a shared household, especially when the daughter-in-law is pitted against aged father-in-law and mother-in-law. “The senior citizens in the evening of their life are also entitled to live peacefully not be haunted by marital discord between their son and daughter-in-law,” it said. The bench, therefore, has held that while adjudicating such cases, a court has to balance rights of both the parties.
Can a complainant be evicted from a shared household in which she or her husband does not have a legal right?
Yes, but only after she is either given an alternate accommodation or monetary value of rent. The top court referred to the pertinent provisions in the Act to highlight the law itself has laid down that she cannot be evicted except in accordance with the “procedure established by law.” The apex court has said that a legal owner of the house such as the in-laws or the landlord can seek her eviction by filing a civil suit and also under the Act. The Supreme Court has held that a civil suit will be maintainable with respect to the property in question. At the same time, similar relief can be sought under the Domestic Violence Act. While adjudicating an application preferred by the aggrieved person, a court may direct the other side to secure the same level of accommodation for her as enjoyed by her in the “shared household,” or to pay rent for the same.