SATISH CHANDRA AHUJA v. SNEHA AHUJA (SC CIVIL APPEAL NO. 2483 of 2020)

Dated: 15 October 2020 // In: Supreme Court of India // Bench Strength: 3

This case raised important questions of law pertaining to the interpretation and operation of the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (“the Act”). In this case, the Supreme Court explicitly laid down that a wife is entitled to a claim of right to residence in a shared household belonging to relatives of her husband. This means that the wife has a right to seek a residence order with respect to property which belongs to her in-laws if she resided in such household along with her husband, subsequent to her marriage.

The facts of the case are that the plaintiff Satish Chandra Ahuja filed a suit against his daughter-in-law Sneha Ahuja for directory and permanent injunction as well as for recuperation of damages/mesne profit. The contention of the plaintiff is that a complaint was filed against them by the defendant under the Act, wherein an interim order prohibiting the plaintiff from alienating and dispossessing the defendant was passed, in the absence of an order from the competent court. He further alleged that the status of occupation of the defendant as daughter-in-law during the subsistence of marriage with the son was permissive in nature, and therefore, the defendant is not entitled to a right of residence against the plaintiff, who does not have any responsibility to maintain her during the lifetime of her husband. In response to this, the defendant claimed in her written statement that the suit property is a shared household as per section 2(s) of the Act, and that she has the right to stay and reside in the shared household property. The application filed by the plaintiff under Order XII Rule 6 CPC was allowed by the trial court, and the suit of the plaintiff was decreed. The trial court took note of the admission made by the defendant in her written statement that the plaintiff was the owner of the property in the suit. Thereafter, the matter reached the High Court, where the judgement of the trial court was set aside and it was observed that the suit could not have been simply decreed by the trial court on the basis of the title without having weighed in the effect of the statutory right in favour of the daughter-in-law. 

The case was remanded to the trial court by the High Court. In an appeal filed before the Supreme Court against the High Court order, the plaintiff placed reliance on the case of SR Batra vs. Smt. Taruna Batra contending that the premises are not a shared household since the husband neither has any share in the suit premises nor is it a joint family property.

In this context, it is important to examine the case of SR Batra vs. Smt. Taruna Batra (“Batra Case”). In that case, the Supreme Court Bench comprising S. B. Sinha J. and M. Katju J. rejected the contention that the phrase ‘shared household’ refers to a household where the aggrieved party lives or, at any stage had lived, in a domestic relationship. It held that a wife is only entitled to claim a right to residence in relation to a household belonging to or taken on rent by the husband, or the house which belongs to the joint family to which the husband belongs. The court further observed that the claim for alternative accommodation can be made against the husband’s in-laws or other relatives.

Based on these judicial precedents, the Apex Court framed the following issues. Firstly, whether the definition of ‘shared household’ under Section 2(s) of the Protection of Women from the Act has to be read to mean a household of the joint family or one in which the husband of the aggrieved party has a share. Secondly, whether the judgement in the Batra Case has correctly interpreted section 2(s) of Protection of Women from the Act.

Foremost, it is essential to determine the meaning of a ‘shared household’ property under Section 2(s) of the Act. A ‘share household’ refers to 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 Supreme Court interpreted the phrase “lives or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship” to be assigned its normal and purposeful meaning. The Court also observed that use of the words “means” and “includes” in Section 2(s) clearly shows the legislative intent to make the definition comprehensive and that it shall include only those cases which fall within the ambit of its definition and no other. The Bench further laid down the following observations: –

  1. The law does not require that the aggrieved person must either own the premises jointly or singly or by tenanting it, jointly or individually.
  2. 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.
  3. The shared household may either be owned or tenanted by the respondent individually or jointly.

In the words of the SC, “the living of a 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”.  

It is important to look into the intentions of the parties as well as the nature of living (which is inclusive of the nature of household) in order to determine whether the parties planned on treating the premises as a shared household. As has already been observed, the Act was enacted with the aim of giving a right to a shared household to favour women. The purpose of the Act is to ensure that the rights of victims of domestic violence are effectively protected. It is important to interpret the Act in a manner in which its object and purpose are effectuated. Section 2(s) read with sections 17 and 19 of the Act confers the right of residence under the shared household upon a woman, whether or not she has a legal interest in the same.

The Court has further used the expression “at any stage has lived” to protect the woman from denial of the benefit of the right to live in a shared household on the ground that on the date when the application is filed, she was precluded from the possession of the household or temporarily that the object was not that wherever the aggrieved person has lived with the relatives of the husband, all such houses shall become the shared household. The Court highlighted that the legislative intent is not to declare all such properties where the aggrieved party has lived with the relatives of the husband, as shared households. While overruling the Batra Case, which had adopted a restrictive interpretation of the phrase ‘shared household’, the Supreme Court clarified that shared household under section 2 of the Act means that shared household of the aggrieved person where she was living at the time when the application was filed or in the past had been precluded from the absent of temporary domestic violence. The Court observed that the right to occupation of a matrimonial home was not so far part of the statutory law in India till the Act came to be enacted. It also highlighted that the advancement of any society depends on its capability to safeguard and elevate the rights of women.

Domestic violence is a pernicious problem in India, evidenced by India’s Global Gender Gap Index ranking of 112 out of 153 countries in 2020, pitting them in the bottom 1/4th of countries ranked for that year. Through this judgement, the Supreme Court has set up a laudable legal precedent for the High Courts to follow. However, the Supreme Court’s stance in the Batra judgment earlier was overlooked by High Courts to protect the interests of women in the ‘shared household’ u/s. 2(s) of the Act, by finding solace in international treaties ratified by India for the protection of women, such as CEDAW.

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