In its first ever judgment under the recently notified Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the Supreme Court has ruled that a wife's claim for alternative accommodation lie only against her husband and not against in-laws and that her right to 'shared household' would not extend to the self-acquired property of her in-laws.
"In our opinion, the claim for alternative accommodation can only be made against the husband…," a Bench of Justice SB Sinha and Justice Markandey Katju said dismissing the claim of a Delhi woman who had claimed her right for alternative accommodation under Section 19(1)(f) of the Act.
The Bench also interpreted the concept of 'shared household' under Section 17(1) of the Act. It clarified "the wife is only entitled to claim a right of residence in a shared household, and a 'shared household' would 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."
The court also commented on poor drafting of Section 2(s) of the Act, which defines 'shared household'. Terming the definition of 'shared household' in Section 2(s) of the Act as "not very happily worded", the Bench said it "appears to be the result of clumsy drafting, but we have to give it an interpretation which is sensible and does not lead to chaos in society," it observed.
The court allowed an appeal filed by the father-in-law and mother-in-law of a woman, living in the property owned by the mother-in-law, who had claimed right to residence in a shared household and also that of an alternative accommodation under the new law notified on October 26, 2006.
Under Section 17(1) of the Act, every woman in a domestic relationship shall have the right to reside in the shared household, whether or not she has any right, title or beneficial interest in the same.
Further, Section 19(1)(f) of the Act provides that a woman can seek a direction to her husband to secure same level of alternate accommodation for herself as enjoyed by her in the shared household or to pay rent for the same, if the circumstances so require.
The apex court's ruling makes it amply clear that shared household would mean only the house belonging to the husband or taken on rent by him or the house belonging to the joint family of which he is a member. It further clarified that the wife's claim for alternative accommodation can be made only against the husband.
Sandhya Batra was married to one Anand Batra (both names changed) on April 14, 2000 and the couple was residing at a house owned by the husband's mother at Ashok Vihar, Phase-I, Delhi.
After Anand filed a divorce petition, Sandhya lodged dowry demand cases against her husband and in-laws including married sister-in-law and they had to visit Tihar Jail.
Initially she shifted to her parents' residence due to the dispute but when she returned to her in-laws' place, the house was locked. She filed a suit for getting entry to the house.
However, it was alleged that even before the suit could be decided, she, along with her parents, forcibly broke open the locks of the house at Ashok Vihar belonging to her mother-in-law. It was further alleged by her in-laws that they had to stay in their office as she terrorised them and that they finally shifted to Mohan Nagar, Ghaziabad.
The trial judge granted her temporary injunction on March four 2003 and restrained her in-laws from interfering with her possession. However, the order was reversed on September 17, 2004 by the Senior Civil Judge, who held that she had no right to the properties other than those of her husband.
The Delhi High Court restored the order of the trial judge holding that "mere change of the residence by the husband would not shift the matrimonial hone from Ashok Vihar, particularly when the husband had filed a divorce petition against the wife."
Her in-laws challenged the HC order before the SC where her counsel contended that in view of the coming into effect of the Act, she could not be dispossessed from the property in question.
Her counsel further contended that the definition of 'shared household' "includes a household where the person aggrieved lives or at any stage had lived in a domestic relationship".
But the apex court rejected the argument, saying if it was accepted then "it will mean that wherever the husband and wife lived together in the past that property becomes a hared household.
"It is quite possible that the husband and wife may have lived together in dozens of places e.g. with the husband's father, husband's paternal grand parents, his maternal parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces etc.
"If the interpretation canvassed by the respondent is accepted, all these houses of the husband's relatives will be shared households and the wife can well insist on living in all these houses of her husband's relatives merely because she had stayed with her husband for some time in those houses in the past. Such a view would lead to chaos and would be absurd," it said.
Allowing her in-laws' appeal, the apex court said "the property in question in the present case neither belongs to Amit Batra nor was it taken on rent by him nor is it a joint family property of which the husband…is a member. It is the exclusive property of the appellant No 2, mother of Anand Batra. Hence it cannot be called a 'shared household'."