On October 15, 2020 a three-judge bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R. Subhash Reddy and MR Shah held that a wife is also entitled to claim a right to residence in a shared household belonging to relatives of the husband. This is an important ruling overturning the previous Apex Court’s decision in S.R. Batra vs Taruna Batra in 2006.
In S.R. Batra vs Taruna Batra 2007 3 SCC 169, the Supreme Court bench of Justices SB Sinha and Markandey Katju had rejected the contention that the definition of shared household includes a household where the person aggrieved lives or at any stage had lived in a domestic relationship. It held that the wife is only entitled to claim a right to residence in a shared household, and a shared household would only mean the house belonging to or taken on rent by the husband, or the house which belongs to the joint family of which the husband is a member under section 2(s) of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. The court had further observed that claim for alternative accommodation can only be made against the husband and not against the husband’s in-laws or other relatives.
But now in Satish Chander Ahuja Vs. Sneha Ahuja (Civ App. No. 2483 of 2020), this 3 judge bench observed the definition of ‘shared household’ given in Section 2(s) of the Act cannot be read to mean that it can only be that household which is household of the joint family of which husband is a member or in which husband of the aggrieved person has a share. The court said that “In the event, shared household belongs to any relative of the husband with whom in a domestic relationship the woman has lived, the conditions mentioned in Section 2(s) are satisfied and the said house will become a shared household.”
Background of the case
Satish Chander Ahuja filed a suit against his daughter in law for mandatory and permanent injunction and also for recovery of damages. He alleged that the property belonged to him and neither his son nor his daughter-in-law Sneha, have any ownership rights over it and it led to passing of an order asking the woman to vacate the premises by the Trial Court. The husband had filed a separate case for decree of divorce against his wife and the woman had filed a criminal complaint under the domestic violence law against the husband, Mr. Ahuja and the mother-in-law. The Delhi High Court had set aside an order of a trial court passed in 2019 asking the daughter-in-law to vacate his premises. The High Court had also passed several directions and asked the civil court to decide the lawsuit afresh. Eventually he appealed to the Apex Court placed reliance on Batra judgment of 2006 and that the premises is not a shared household since the husband neither has any share in the suit premises nor suit premises is a joint family property.
So, the court was confronted with two issues: One, whether the definition of shared household under Section 2(s) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 has to be read to mean that shared household can only be that household which is household of joint family or in which husband of the aggrieved person has a share? Second, whether or not the judgment in S.R. Batra and Anr. Vs. Taruna Batra has correctly interpreted the provision of Section 2(s) of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
Section 2(s) lays down that “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 phrase lives or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship in section 2(s) has to be given a purposeful and normal meaning, opined the Bench. They observed that “From the above definition, following is clear:- (i) it is not requirement of law that aggrieved person may either own the premises jointly or singly or by tenanting it jointly or singly; (ii) the household may belong to a 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; and (iii) the shared household may either be owned or tenanted by the respondent singly or jointly.”
On the first issue, the court emphasized on the permanency of a woman inhabiting a house for security and that the purpose of the legislators behind the Domestic violence act was to safeguard the interests of women. “The living of woman in a household has to refer to a living which has some permanency. 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. As noted above, Act 2005 was enacted to give a higher right in favour of woman. The Act, 2005 has been enacted to provide for more effective protection of the rights of the woman who are victims of violence of any kind occurring within the family. The Act has to be interpreted in a manner to effectuate the very purpose and object of the Act. Section 2(s) read with Sections 17 and 19 of Act, 2005 grants 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.”, noted the court.
On the second issue, the court said that, “The observation of this Court in S.R. Batra Vs. Taruna Batra that definition of shared household in Section 2(s) is not very happily worded and it has to be interpreted, which is sensible and does not lead to chaos in the society also does not commend us. The definition of shared household is clear and exhaustive definition as observed by us. The object and purpose of the Act was to grant a right to aggrieved person, a woman of residence in shared household. The interpretation which is put by this Court in S.R. Batra Vs. Taruna Batra if accepted shall clearly frustrate the object and purpose of the Act. We, thus, are of the opinion that the interpretation of definition of shared household as put by this Court in S.R. Batra Vs. Taruna Batra is not correct interpretation and the said judgment does not lay down the correct law.”
Recognizing the historical abuse faced by women in India, the court relied on the significance of equal status for them while comprehending the reasons for domestic laws in place. It noted that “The progress of any society depends on its ability to protect and promote the rights of its women. Guaranteeing equal rights and privileges to women by the Constitution of India had marked the step towards the transformation of the status of the women in this country.”
They admitted how women mould into different roles in the society and are expected to perform subserviently to the males. “The domestic violence in this country is rampant and several women encounter violence in some form or the other or almost every day, however, it is the least reported form of cruel behaviour. A woman resigns her fate to the never-ending cycle of enduring violence and discrimination as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a partner or a single woman in her lifetime. This non-retaliation by women coupled with the absence of laws addressing women’s issues, ignorance of the existing laws enacted for women and societal attitude makes the women vulnerable. The reason why most cases of domestic violence are never reported is due to the social stigma of the society and the attitude of the women themselves, where women are expected to be subservient, not just to their male counterparts but also to the male’s relatives.”
The court also remarked that the 2005 Act of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence was a milestone in protection of women in the country!
The order may be read here: