The recent Supreme Court ruling on maintenance for women in live-in relationships has triggered a fresh debate on this growing urban upper and middle class phenomenon.
As a phenomenon, live-in relationships between men and women are older than the institution of marriage, which came much later in the evolution of human civilization. However, once marriage got wider social and legal sanction, society started viewing live-in relationships with disapproval.
Due to a variety of socio-economic reasons the trend is again gaining currency in cities among educated and economically independent men and women.
However, isolated cases of live-in relationships have existed all along. Even during the British Raj, the Privy Council said continuous co-habitation of a couple as husband and wife for a number of years may raise the presumption of marriage. The presumption, however, was rebuttable.
The Supreme Court delivered verdicts relating to the matter in 1952 and 1978. Citing these earlier verdicts, in 2008 the court ruled that if a man and a woman live together for a long period as husband and wife, there is a presumption of a valid marriage between them. Children born of such relationships were given inheritance rights. However, in the event of desertion by their partners, there was no provision for maintenance for women who were not legally wedded wives.
The National Commission for Women had recommended to the government that it make suitable changes in the law to entitle women in live-in relations to maintenance. Despite there being no amendment to the provision, in some cases lower courts granted maintenance to women in live-in relationships.
When Parliament enacted the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, it virtually gave recognition to live-in relationships by providing for maintenance to "aggrieved" women who had been in "a relationship in the nature of marriage."
But the Act does not define what constitutes "a relationship in the nature of marriage".
The Supreme Court has now cleared the air by holding that not all live-in relationships are covered under the 2005 Act and merely spending weekends together or having a one-night stand would not make it a domestic relationship.
Holding that 'a relationship in the nature of marriage' was akin to a common law marriage, the court said a woman in a live-in relationship would be entitled to maintenance only if she fulfilled certain conditions.
A bench headed by Justice Markandey Katju listed four pre-requisites: (a) the couple must hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses; (b) they must be of legal age to marry; (c) they must be otherwise qualified to enter into a legal marriage including being unmarried; and (d) they must have voluntarily cohabited and held themselves out to the world as akin to spouses for a significant period of time.
The SC verdict will exclude many women who have had live-in relationships from the benefit of the 2005 Act as it limits the scope of the law.