Conflicting laws can lead to victims of domestic violence being shortchanged
In 2007, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act (Senior Citizens Act) was passed to provide maintenance support to elderly parents and senior citizens. Under this law, parents can claim maintenance from adult children and grandchildren for food, residence, clothing, etc.
It also has provisions to safeguard parents’– and in-laws’– right to property through giving them the choice to evict the daughter-in-law from their own property in case of family disputes. This is because daughter-in-laws have a right under the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, right to reside in a ‘shared household’ or the ‘matrimonial household’ during and after domestic violence proceedings.
Thus, the Senior Citizens Act and the Domestic Violence Act end up working at cross purposes. Past judgments have been unable to clarify whether – and in what circumstances – the right of daughters-in-law to reside in a shared household under the Domestic Violence Act takes precedence over the right of the parents-in-law to evict the daughter-in-law from their property under the Senior Citizens Act.
As a result, judgments have been inconsistent and have failed to render justice to deserving parties. The lack of consensus on the definition of a ‘shared household’ in the Domestic Violence Act is a key reason. This and more reasons are explained in the blog below.
Reason for inconsistent judgments by courts: No clear definition of ‘shared household’
Shared household includes property of in-laws
The Supreme Court, in S.R Batra and Anr.v. Taruna Batra (2007), had held that during or after proceedings, the wife is only entitled to claim the right to residence in a shared household which includes the house belonging to or taken on rent by the husband, or a house which belongs to a joint family of which the husband is a members subject to conditions.
However, many decisions post Taruna Batra have held that daughters-in-law have the right to continue to live in their shared household irrespective of whether the property belongs to the in-laws or not, but only under the condition that the daughter-in-law has no alternate accommodation or any such accommodation made available by the husband.
Also, while the Supreme Court in Taruna Batra gave an expansive interpretation to the term ‘shared household’, another bench of the Supreme Court in Vimalben Ajitbhai Patel and Ors. Vs Vatslabeen Ashokbhai Patel and Ors. (2008) narrowly interpreted the same. In the latter judgment, the Court held that if the house of the in-laws is owned exclusively by them, the house would not constitute a ‘shared household’ under Section 2(s) of the Domestic Violence Act.
Not only has this judgment resulted in denial of a woman’s right of residence in her in-laws’ house, but has also impacted several High Courts’ judgments on the interpretation of the term. For instance, in Shumita Didi Sandhu v. Sanjay Singh Sandhu & Ors. (2010), the Delhi High Court held that the right of residence under the Domestic Violence Act does not mean the right to reside in a particular property but the right to reside in a ‘commensurate property’ belonging to the husband or the in-laws, which does not allow her exclusive right to her marital house.
Guidelines to achieve balance between the Domestic Violence Act and Senior Citizens Act
The Delhi High Court, in Vinay Varma v KanishaParishcha(2019), attempted to address the lack of clarity in the two Acts by issuing six broad guidelines to be followed by Courts. These largely are:
• The Courts have to ascertain the nature of the relationship between the daughter-in-law and the parents, and have to determine whether she was living in a joint family.
• As per the guidelines, if the parents decide to evict the daughter, the husband has the duty to take care of the wife by paying maintenance under the Domestic Violence law. In scenarios where parents are seen colluding with their son, the obligation to take care and provide shelter to the daughter-in-law would fall on the husband as well as the parents.
• The parents may claim exclusive possession of the property in situations where their son is ill-treating them or if he has abandoned both the parents and his wife or children. The parents would, however, have to provide shelter to the daughter-in-law for a reasonable period if they had lived together in a joint family.
The problem with such guidelines is that it is difficult to put such a restrictive formula on adjudicating the right of residence of a woman/daughter-in-law in domestic violence cases. The guidelines only serve as an indicative list for the purpose of enforcement as they don’t account for or encompass all types of situations and hence, cannot be definitive.
It becomes evident on analysing judgments such as Taruna Batra that the principles formulated by the Court limited itself to the Domestic Violence Act and did not consider the issue of any conflict with the Senior Citizens Act.
The laws need to clearly determine under which circumstances the rights of daughters-in-law gain precedence over the rights of parents-in-law. In conclusion, it may be said that an appropriate amendment in Section 17 of the domestic violence law to harmonise the Domestic Violence Act and Senior Citizens Act is required.
Unless the position of law is made clear, confusion and uncertainty in lower courts will consequently result in inconsistencies in judgments rendered by Courts leading to additional burdens for both parties.
Views are personal.