Knotty issues requiring judicial intervention often become the trigger to understand the inadequacy of existing laws. In rejecting an appeal for maintenance moved by a woman who had a live-in relationship with a married man, the Supreme Court has realised one such deficiency.
The absence of legal cover for women in live-in relationships and the children born out of such relationships has been long-felt. But in its latest attempt to address the flaw, the Supreme Court seems to have made it tougher for women to claim legal recourse. This is partly due to a 10-point guideline that it has issued to help identify live-in relationships that are “in the nature of marriage”.
In 2005, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which offers protection and financial security for domestic violence victims, made a revolutionary departure from earlier laws.
Section 2(f) of the Act included “relationship in the nature of marriage” in its definition of a domestic relationship. Over time, a number of judgments have interpreted this to conclude that certain live-in relationships can be subsumed under this definition of domestic relationship. But with live-in relationships still facing social unacceptability and many judges steeped in conservative mores, Section 2(f) continues to be interpreted in an inconsistent and subjective manner.
In the present case, the Supreme Court refused to accept the woman’s contention that her relationship with the man was “in the nature of marriage”, because she was aware he was married. The judgment ruled that offering relief to her would amount to condoning a bigamous relationship and injustice to the legally married wife and children who opposed the relationship.
But in the same breath the court also voices the concerns of the woman, acknowledging she is “in distress, a survivor of a live-in relationship which is of serious concern, especially when such persons are poor and illiterate”. The judgment also admits that live-in relationships could show a “pattern of dependency and vulnerability” and the increasing number of such relationships calls for adequate and effective protection for women and the children born out of them.
In 2010, the Supreme Court laid down guidelines in the Velusamy vs Patchaiammal case to help courts identify a live-in relationship. The SC said the couple must hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses for a significant period of time, that they must be unmarried and of legal age to marry, and they must have voluntarily cohabited, and lived together in a ‘shared household’.
Expanding these guidelines, the November 26 judgment also included the pooling of resources and financial arrangements, sharing of domestic responsibilities, sexual relationship and having children, socialisation in public, and the intention and conduct of both parties.
But some of the new prescriptions will make it tougher for women in live-in relationships to prove a “relationship in the nature of marriage”. Sexual relationships are difficult to prove and the woman may not have a choice on bearing children. With courts unable to make sense of Section 2(f), it is best that Parliament ponder over these issues and impart clarity to the present confusion. But even while appearing to have sympathies with the woman, the judgment says the woman’s status was that of a “mistress” and a “concubine”, for being in a relationship with a married man. The continued use of such derogatory language by the courts is a matter of concern that needs to be addressed too.