This article has been authored by Nandini Gupta a 4th year student at University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University
A three judge bench of the Supreme Court in the landmark judgement of Satish Chander Ahuja v Sneha Ahuja answered a significant question of law and gave a daughter-in-law the right to residence, irrespective of her husband’s share or right in the property. Up until this judgement, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (“2005 Act”) did guarantee women a right to shared household under Section 17 of the Act. But the definition of ‘shared household’ was not clear. The only judgement available in this context was the S.R. Batra v Taruna Batra, (2007) 3 SCC 169 which stated that a wife only has a right to reside in those properties in which her husband’s hold any interest or title. Certain guidelines were laid down in Vinay Verma v. Kanika Pasricha & Anr. as to who would be under obligation to provide an accommodation to a daughter-in-law in cases where the ‘shared household’ is the exclusive property of the father-in-law. But even this judgement didn’t provide a right to residence to the daughter-in-law. This is where the Satish Chander Ahuja v Sneha Ahuja judgement given by Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice R Subhash Reddy and Justice M.R. Shah makes a change.
Background of the case
The plaintiff, Satish Chander Ahuja purchased a property bearing No. D-1077, New Friends Colony, New Delhi (“property”). Years later, his son Raveen Ahuja and daughter-in-law Sneha Ahuja (the defendant in the present case) inhabited the first floor of the said property. Due to some marital discord, Raveen started living in the guest room on the ground floor, where his parents resided and the defendant started a separate kitchen in the 1st floor accommodation. On 28 November 2014, Raveen Ahuja filed a divorce petition under Section 13(1)(ia) and Section 13(1)(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 on the ground that he was subjected to cruelty by his wife i.e. the defendant. The defendant then filed a petition under Section 12 of 2005 Act on 20 November 2015 against Raveen Ahuja and his parents on the grounds of mental and emotional abuse. The divorce petition is still pending but with respect to the petition u/S 12, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate passed an interim order that the respondents shall not alienate the property and would not deprive the complainant or her children from the same.
The real case began when the plaintiff filed a suit of mandatory injunction against the defendant to vacate the property and a permanent injunction suit restraining her to enter and reside in the house. He also asked for recovery of damages/mesne profits. He pleaded that the defendant has filed false and frivolous cases against his family causing them emotional and mental stress. He also pleaded that the defendant subjected him and his wife to domestic violence, and he was not liable to maintain her during the lifetime of her husband. The plaintiff contends while relying on the SC Judgment S.R. Batra v Taruna Batra that the respondent can only claim a right to reside in a house which is either a joint family property or the husband has a share in it.
In the written statement, the defendant claimed that she was the one who was actually subjected to domestic violence and that she has a right to reside in the property, it being a shared household under Section 2(s) of the 2005 Act.
Judgement of the Court
The court in this case mainly analyses two important questions of law – firstly, the extent of the definition of shared household u/s 2(s) of the Act and secondly, has the law been laid correctly in the judgement of S.R. Batra and Anr. Vs. Taruna Batra?
The SC in the case of Bharat Coop. Bank (Mumbai) Ltd. Vs. Coop. Bank Employees Union, (2007) 4 SCC 685 explained the term “means and includes”. The court held that when a provision used the term “means”, it would be considered as a hard and fast definition and no other interpretation can be assigned to it. When the term “includes” is used, the legislature has made the definition enumerative. Therefore, using the term “means and includes” indicated that the legislature intended to make the definition exhaustive. The court while interpreting the extent of the definition of shared household broke the definition in two parts - the first part reads “shared household means a household where the person aggrieved has lived or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship either singly or along with the respondent”. Thus, first condition to be fulfilled for a shared household is that person aggrieved lives or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship. The second part which follows “includes” can be further sub-divided in two parts.(a) includes such a household whether owned or tenanted either jointly by the aggrieved person and the respondent and owned or tenanted by either of them in respect of which either the aggrieved person or the respondent or both jointly or singly have any right, title, interest or equity and(b) includes such a household which may belong to the joint family of which the respondent is a member, irrespective of whether the respondent or the aggrieved person has any right, title or interest in the shared household.
From the above definition, following is clear: - (i) it is not requirement of law that aggrieved person may either own the premises jointly or singly or by tenanting it jointly or singly; (ii) the household may belong to a joint family of which the respondent is a member irrespective of whether the respondent or the aggrieved person has any right, title or interest in the shared household; and (iii) the shared household may either be owned or tenanted by the respondent singly or jointly.
Therefore, the court is of the view that definition of shared household is an exhaustive definition.
The court stated that “mere fleeting or casual living” doesn’t constitute a shared household. The intention of the parties has to be looked upon to check whether a house can be said to be the shared household. The court found that the S.R. Batra and Anr. Vs. Taruna Batra judgement did not take in its account the other parts of definition. It was held in this case that “wife is only entitled to claim a right to residence in a shared household and a shared household would only mean the house belonging to or taken on rent by the husband, or the house which belongs to the joint family of which the husband is a member.” The court held that the definition of the term ‘respondent’ doesn’t only constitute the husband, but also his relatives. Therefore, the shared household belonging to any relative of the husband with whom in a domestic relationship the woman has lived, the conditions mentioned in Section 2(s) are satisfied and the said house will become a shared household.
Overruling the above judgement, the court held that “The definition of shared household given in Section 2(s) cannot be read to mean that shared household can only be that household which is household of the joint family to which husband is a member or in which husband of the aggrieved person has a share” i.e., the daughter-in-law will have the right to reside in the house irrespective of her husband’s right or share in it. The court also stated the entire legislative intent behind the 2005 Act was to safeguard women and give them a right to have a household where she has lived throughout her entire marital life. The appeal was therefore, dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Analysis and conclusion
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was enacted to protect the rights of women who are often silenced. An important feature of this law is to secure a woman with right of an accommodation i.e., a shared household, regardless of the fact whether she has any ownership title or right in it or not. This act prevents women from being rendered homeless. The judgement makes a positive step by providing a right to residence to women in a shared household despite her husband’s right or title in it. But at the same title, it also has to been pointed out that every person has a right to enjoy his/her property in the way he/she wants. Special emphasis has to been on the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 under which senior citizens also have a right to enjoy a peaceful life in their own property. The Apex Court has earlier held in the case Smt S Vanitha v The Deputy Commissioner, Bengaluru Urban District & Ors. that both these acts i.e., Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 and Domestic Violence Act of 2005 are special enactments and the primary effort of the interpreter must be to harmonize. The court held that in case of conflicts between two special laws. The issues have to be carefully analysed to ascertain which law should prevail over the other. Secondly, this judgement does not put an end to all the questions. What will be the rights of the woman with respect to the property? Till what duration will she be able to cohabit the property? Though this judgement is a pathbreaking one, but there are still questions which needs to be answered to secure both citizen citizens and women the fulfilment of their rights.