“Commitment” to live together

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Traditionally, the Indian society might have frowned upon live-in relationships. But the growing number of such couples indicates a degree of acceptance. Women, however, are still the losers

THE ‘live- in-relationship’ is a living arrangement in which an un-married couple lives together in a long-term relationship that resembles a marriage. The Hindu Marriage Act 1955 does not recognise ‘live-in-relationship’. Nor does the Criminal Procedure Code 1973. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) on the other hand for the purpose of providing protection and maintenance to women says that an aggrieved live-in partner may be granted alimony under the Act.

“Merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand would not make it a domestic relationship,” said a bench of Justices Markandey Katju and TS Thakur, cautioning that in future, claims for financial relief arising out of live-in link-ups would increase in India. The Supreme Court of India has noted that just any ‘live-in relationship’ does not entitle a woman to alimony. To make a ‘live-in’ legal the Supreme Court says that the couple must hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses; they must be of legal age to marry; they must be otherwise qualified to enter into a legal marriage, including being unmarried; and they must have voluntarily cohabited for a significant period of time. Making an attempt to iron out certain ambiguous situations, the judges also said that if a man has a ‘mistress’ whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant it would not, in our opinion, be a relationship “in the nature of marriage.”

Conscious that the judgment would exclude many women in live-in relationships from the benefit of the PWDVA, the apex court further said it is not for this court to legislate or amend the law. Parliament has used the expression ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ and not ‘live-in relationship’.

Considering the increasing number of live-in relationships in our times in India, the Supreme Court wants the scope of the provision for maintenance under section 125 of the criminal procedure code (Cr.P.C.) expanded, so that women in such relationships do not face economic deprivation after living in a domestic set-up for long periods of time.

The issue has assumed and rightly so huge dimensions that Justice GS Singhvi and Justice AK Ganguly have urged the Chief Justice SH Kapadia to set up a larger bench to consider whether “the living together of a man and woman as husband and wife for a considerable period would raise the presumption of a valid marriage between them and whether such a presumption would entitle the woman to maintenance under section 125 Cr.P.C.?’’ Secondly whether proof of marriage is essential for a claim of maintenance under the section? Also whether a marriage performed according to customary rites, without strictly fulfilling the requisites of the Hindu Marriage Act, or any other personal law, would entitle the woman to maintenance under the section?”

The bench also wanted an expansive interpretation of the term ‘wife’ to include cases where a man and woman have been living together as husband and wife for a reasonably long period. The judges said the PWDVA gave a very broad definition of the term ‘domestic abuse’, which must include economic abuse.

The law traditionally has been biased in favour of marriage. Public policy supports marriage as necessary to the stability of the family, the basic societal unit. To preserve and encourage marriage, the law reserves many rights and privileges to married persons. Cohabitation carries none of those rights and privileges. It has been said in the context that cohabitation has all the headaches of marriage without any of the benefits.

What the PWDVA does is that it deters men from having ‘live-in-relationships’ for the fear of providing maintenance to his partner. On the other hand if a married man provides maintenance to his partner he is denying what was the economic right of his legal wife and children.

What needs to be understood is that the institution of marriage and issues that emerge from it is essentially a concept that needs to be perceived in a time frame and specific context. A set of norms valued and acceptable in one context cannot easily or rather should not easily be planted in another context. Today’s India is changing at a pace that was socially unimaginable say 50 years ago. Issues like ‘live-in relationship’ that were taken up by the western society are gradually percolating into our social norms. The most obvious contributing factor being the transformed urban life which itself is growing from factors associated with urbanisation and increased income, long hours of work, often late in the night and virtually no time for family.

But the issue that needs our conscious attention is that is Indian society ready for this trend? It needs to be noted that whatever one may say the fact is that women will ultimately emerge as the most vulnerable and possibly the greatest losers. Children that result from such relationships are also to be kept in mind. The conventional argument that has always been cited in favour of India’s unique concept of the family being responsible for looking after the young and the aged is also an issue of concern.

The PWDVA is silent on the status of children out of a ‘live-in relationship’. Finally it must also be appreciated that laws and legal obligations notwithstanding foundations of a relationship are based on commitment.

Marriage is just another commitment. If people are shying away from marriages – one reason could be that people are scared of commitments that grow from marriage and are worried– what if it does not work out? Divorce procedures in our country are cumbersome and taxing. May be they need a more liberal reframing so as to decrease the element of fear.

(The writer is Director, Women’s Studies, Research Centre, Kurukshetra University)

What judges said

ON October 21, 2010 a Two-Judge Bench of Supreme Court comprising Justices Markandey Katju and TS Thakur in D Veluswamy vs D Patchaiammal ruled that in their opinion not all live-in relationships will amount to a relationship in the nature of marriage to get the benefit of the PWDVA, 2005.

Merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand would not make it a “domestic relationship.” If a man has a “keep” whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purposes and/or as a servant it would not, in our opinion, be a relationship in the nature of marriage. No doubt, the view we are taking would exclude many women who have a live-in relationship from the benefit of the PWDVA Act, but then it is not for this court to legislate or amend the law. Parliament has used the expression “relationship in the nature of marriage” and not “live in relationship”.

Dispel Confusion – BY Hemant Kumar

THE diverse societal opinion on the growing trend of “live-in-relationship” apart, the judicial viewpoint over the same has been rather cautious. Of course, things have undergone a change after the enactment of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA) whose provisions also extend to women living-in a relationship in the nature of marriage. By doing so, albeit in a veiled manner, the legislature has finally endeavored to accept the contemporary global phenomena appreciated and attempted by some persons among the Gen Next.

In August this year, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court ruled that a live-in which has been long lasting will be considered as marriage and children born out of it are not illegitimate. This verdict came just days after a Delhi High Court ruling which laid down that a partner in a live-in relationship can walk out of it at any point of time without any legal consequence and neither of the partners can complain of infidelity if one deserts the other. It held that “live-in is a walk-in and walk-out relationship. There are no strings attached to it nor the same creates any legal bond between the parties. Such a thing is a contract of living together which is renewed every day by the parties and can be terminated by either without consent of the other party.”

In mid-2008, the National Commission for Women recommended that a woman in a live-in relationship should be entitled to maintenance if she is deserted by her partner. The commission sought a change in the definition of ‘‘wife’’ as described in the Section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which deals with maintenance and suggested that it should include women involved in a live-in relationship. The move aims at harmonising other sections of the law with the PWDVA that treats a live-in couple’s relationship on a par with that between a legally married husband and wife. The state of Maharashtra also okayed this proposal in 2008 but it requires the final nod of the Centre. Section 125 provides for maintenance of wife, children and parents, who cannot maintain themselves. As of now maintenance can only be claimed by a woman who is a wife, has either been divorced or has obtained a divorce, or is legally separated and is not remarried. It is hoped that the Supreme Court would urgently interpret the whole issue thoroughly in order to ensure that there is no room for any ambiguity for lower courts in the country while dealing with issues related to live-in. Until the concept is granted statutory recognition by Parliament, it is imperative for the judiciary to clear its stand over the same so as to protect the interests of women in such relationships.

(The writer is an advocate Punjab and Haryana High Court)