Jury trials came to India with the British and were abolished after the now infamous 1959 Nanavati murder trial, not many know that matrimonial disputes among the Parsi community is still tried by a five-member jury system in the country.
This Friday, the Bombay high court concluded a 10-day jury trial session, the last such sitting to be held this year. The HC conducts about two such sessions each year to dispose of pending matrimonial suits of the Parsi community in the city.
The court convenes at the central hall in the high court premises, and besides the judge who oversees the trials, a five-member jury, known as ‘delegates’, sits opposite to the witness box, just like the olden days, taking meticulous notes, and exercising the final say over the fate of all cases.
These delegates, most of them retired professionals from the community, first give their names to the Parsi Panchayat that in turn sends a list to the HC. The judge then picks five names through a draw of lots.
The delegates unanimously say that they consider jury duty a “service to the community”, though they do receive nominal compensation for commutation and food.
The just concluded session, which had two women and three men, presided over 27 cases — mostly seeking divorce, or revision of custody arrangements— of which, six were disposed of after extensive arguments, and two were decided through mutual consent.
While matrimonial disputes in a regular family court inevitably drag on for years, the delegates ensure that the cases before them see a swift end.
“That is because, we sit just a few times a year and the cases have already been pending a hearing for several years. Why, just this time, we sat through a divorce case in which the couple in their sixties had been living separately and wanting a formal divorce for 11 years,” said one of the delegates, a sixty five-year-old retired teacher who has been performing jury duty since 2005.
“The court heard the arguments for two days straight and the delegates decided that they must be granted a divorce. However, when the judge began to decide on the alimony, the woman backed out. She did not like what was being offered to her, and decided not to get divorced after all,” she said.
These complications, the delegates said, are common as “more marriages in the community seem to be ending in divorces these days”.
“It is probably because tolerance levels run low and because women are more independent. They work, read more, and are aware of their rights,” the other woman delegate said.
While the earliest Zoroastrian community rules granted only a man the right to divorce his wife if the woman was “insubordinate” or “adulterous”, the law has changed considerably over time and now the delegates allow couples to divorce if allegations over adultery, bigamy, cruelty, or desertion are proved.
“Adultery is the most common reason these days. The second most common reason is greed — you see. Most members of the community possess large estates and substantial assets and when relationships turn sour, couples come to court fighting over the property,” says another delegate, a retired banker.
“The delegates however, are required only to give their consent for divorce. The rest of the terms of settlement are argued by the lawyers and the HC judge has the final word over the settlement terms,” says advocate Sanobar Nanavati, who has been dealing with Parsi matrimonial disputes for over two decades.
But most in the community agree that the jury system serves well. “It is because the delegates are pragmatic and above all, are aware of the nuances of our community,” said one of the litigants.
The arguments in the Parsi matrimonial cases too are different from those in a regular matrimonial dispute. “The arguments are much more emotional and dramatic, almost resembling that in a movie. It’s because, we are pleading our case before five members who have nothing to do with our regular legal system. So we cannot harp on the laws alone but must make an emotional pitch to establish a connect,” Nanavati says.
Justice Gautam Patel, who presided over the cases, has also scheduled a two-day-long special session in September this year for one of the cases that could not be concluded despite extensive arguments.