Widows under Domestic Violence Act: Expansion of Rights

The Supreme Court recently expanded the rights of women, especially widows, under the Domestic Violence Act with its interpretation of the concepts ‘domestic relationship’, ‘shared household’ & ‘domestic incident report’.

Thu Jun 16 2022 | Family Law | Comments (0)

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In the recent judgment of Prabha Tyagi v. Kamlesh Devi, the Supreme Court safeguarded the interests of widows under the Domestic Violence Act by giving a wide interpretation to the term ‘right to reside in a shared household’ under law. The court undertook a progressive interpretation to uphold the values of the Act, which is seen as a social-welfare legislation.

In essence, the judgment held that the right to reside cannot be restricted only to the matrimonial home but can be extended to other homes of the family as well. The court has effectively given rights to widowed daughters-in-law through the remedial functionality of the Act.

Background to the case

The aggrieved woman, Prabha Tyagi, was married to her late husband in June 2005, and for the period immediately following the marriage, she was residing in the ancestral home of the husband with her in-laws and other members. Soon, however, she moved with her husband to the village home in Jhabreda.

In July 2005, Kuldeep Tyagi, the husband, died in a motor accident and Prabha Tygai was constrained to reside at her father’s home in Delhi. After the birth of her child, the aggrieved woman moved to Dehradun. She then filed an application under Section 12 of the Act against her in-laws seeking residence in the property of her late husband, among other reliefs. The aggrieved was threatened repeatedly over any attempts to acquire the property of her late husband.

The question before the court was whether the aggrieved woman, who never actually lived with the respondents (i.e., the in-laws) in a shared household and had no subsisting ‘domestic relationship’ with them at the time of the complaint, is entitled to relief of residence under a shared household in accordance with the Act.

What went in favour of the aggrieved woman?

The following points or concepts were important in tilting the case towards the aggrieved person:

Domestic relationship

Section 12 provides the right to an aggrieved person to file an application with the Magistrate seeking reliefs under the Act. Section 2(a) describes an ‘aggrieved woman’ as someone who is, or has been, in a ‘domestic relationship’ with the respondent. Now, domestic relationship is defined under Section 2(f) to mean a relationship between two persons who live, or have, at some point of time, lived together in a shared household related by consanguinity, marriage, adoption, etc. Thus, to be classified as an ‘aggrieved person’, a domestic relationship is mandatory to claim relief under Section 12. However, Section 2(a) uses the terms has been, which clarifies that the relationship need not be ‘subsisting’ at the time of the complaint. The court gave this a wide interpretation to also mean any ‘past’ domestic relationship, as is the situation in this present case.

The expression ‘marriage’ is also understood to encompass a relationship in the nature of marriage or arising due to marriage. Section 2(f) also uses the expression ‘have at any point of time…’ which further clarifies the intent of the legislature to mean that a subsisting relationship at the time of complaint is not necessary.

Shared household

Section 17(1) defines ‘shared households’ in the context of an aggrieved person as ‘a household where such person lives or has lived through a domestic relationship, either singularly or with the respondent’. Thus, a mother, daughter, sister, wife, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law or such other categories of women, in a domestic relationship, have the right to reside in a shared household even without a right, title or interest in the same. This right of residence exists even in absence of any domestic violence due to Section 17(1).

This right is not confined to ‘actual residence’ of her husband; she also has the right in the shared household, which is different from that of her husband, in a different location, where his family may be residing. Thus, this right to reside includes the right to ‘constructive residence’ also; this right cannot be violated except via procedure established by law, i.e., no aggrieved person can be arbitrarily excluded or evicted. This interpretation is relevant for widows, who reside in the same household as their husbands during their married life, but upon his death, are often left confused, homeless and evicted from the matrimonial household.

Domestic Incident Report

In the procedural aspect of the arguments put forth, the court held that absence of the Domestic Incident Report, which is to be filed and submitted by the protection officer to the Magistrate under Section 12, reliefs such as ‘right to reside’ remain unaffected. Section 12 does not make it mandatory for a Magistrate to consider the report filed by the protection officer before filing any order under the Act. The Magistrate possesses the power to pass any order (final or interim) ex parte under the provisions of the Act. 

Conclusion

The move by the Supreme Court to expand the interpretation of the above-mentioned concepts, especially in the context of widows, is of great value. Such an interpretation will limit circumvention and exploitation of the Domestic Violence Act. The court has examined the legislative intent of the Parliament and ruled accordingly.

The absence of a ‘subsisting domestic relationship’ at the time of seeking relief has clarified a major legal question for women seeking protection of the shared household post marriage or post the death of their husbands. This is a progressive step - not only in matters for shared households, but also in other matters of domestic violence that require an application under Section 12 of the Act. The non-mandatory nature of the Domestic Incident Report also facilitates complaints by removing procedural hurdles.

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