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Landmark Supreme Court Judgment: Indra Sharma vs V.K.V. Sharma: Live-in Relationships and Women's Rights under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

The Supreme Court of India has fulfilled a critical role in protecting women's rights. The Hon'ble Supreme Court addressed the subject of live-in relationships and how far they are associated with or authorized under the purview of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, in this context in the case of Indra Sarma v. V.K.V. Sarma. This decision addressed the distinction between 'live-in relationships' and 'relationships in nature of marriage' and is regarded as a major decision on the subject.

Facts Of The Case
Initial Phase
  • The appellant (Indra Sharma), an unmarried woman, and the respondent (V.K.V. Sharma), a married man with two children, used to work together in the same company, and in due course, intimate relations developed between them. The appellant quit the company and started living together with the respondent in a shared household, despite knowing that the respondent is a married man.
  • The respondent had started a business in the appellant's name, through which they worked and made a living.

Differences between the couple
  • After a while, the respondent shifted the business to his residence and continued the business with his son, depriving her (the appellant) of her right to work and earn.
  • In the course of their relationship, the appellant became pregnant on three occasions. It was stated by the appellant that the respondent used to force her to take contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and forced her to abort the child on three occasions.
  • Further, the respondent took several loans from the appellant with a promise to repay her, but the promise remained unfulfilled.
  • The appellant claimed that the respondent harassed her by not referring to her as his wife in public and not allowing her to use his name as her surname. He also did not accompany her to his family's or friends' homes or anywhere else, including hospitals and banks. As a result, the respondent's family forced him to leave the appellant's company, and he left the company without maintaining her.
Round the Court
  • The appellant filed a criminal case under Section 12 of the Domestic Violence Act ('DV Act') before the IIIrd Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Bangalore. The learned magistrate gave a decision in the appellant's favor as they have lived together for a considerable period of time (18 years) and the respondent had left her without maintaining her; therefore, they had to maintain the appellant.
  • The respondent filed an appeal in the Sessions Court under Section 29 of the DV Act after becoming upset with the order. The appellate court confirmed the order passed by the learned magistrate, as the appellant had no source of income and the respondent was legally obliged to maintain her.
  • Thereafter, the respondent preferred an appeal in the High Court challenging the order of the courts below. The High Court allowed the appeal and gave the decision in favor of the respondent by quoting a case, 'D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaiammal' and submitting that the test laid down in Velusamy's case was not satisfied.
  • Hence, the appellant preferred this appeal.

Issues Of The Case
The allegations gave rise to two significant issues framed by the Court. They are:
  1. Whether a live-in relationship would amount to a relationship in the nature of marriage falling within the definition of domestic relationship under Section 2(f) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (DV Act)?
  2. If the disruption of such a relationship by failure to maintain a woman involved in such a relationship amounts to domestic violence within the meaning of Section 3 of the Domestic Violence Act?

Relevant Legal Provisions
2(f) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

"Domestic Relationship" means a relationship between two persons who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family;

2(O) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

"Protection order" means an order made in terms of section 18

Section 12 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005
Application to Magistrate:
  1. An aggrieved person, a Protection Officer, or any other person on behalf of the aggrieved person may present an application to the Magistrate seeking one or more reliefs under this Act: Provided that before passing any order on such an application, the magistrate shall take into consideration any domestic incident report received by him from the protection officer or the service provider.
  2. The relief sought for under sub-section (1) may include a relief for issuance of an order for payment of compensation or damages without prejudice to the right of such person to institute a suit for compensation or damages for the injuries caused by the acts of domestic violence committed by the respondent: Provided that where a decree for any amount as compensation or damages has been passed by any court in favor of the aggrieved person, the amount, if any, paid or payable in pursuance of the order made by the Magistrate under this Act shall be set off against the amount payable under such decree and the decree shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (5 of 1908), or any other law for the time being in force, be executable for the balance amount, if any, left after such set-off.
  3. Every application under sub-section (1) shall be in such form and contain such particulars as may be prescribed or as nearly as possible thereto.
  4. The Magistrate shall fix the first date of hearing, which shall not ordinarily be beyond three days from the date of receipt of the application by the court.
  5. The Magistrate shall endeavor to dispose of every application made under sub-section (1) within a period of sixty days from the date of its first hearing.
Section 18 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005
Protection orders:
The magistrate can issue a protection order in favor of the person who is being abused and against the person who is being abused if they are initially satisfied that domestic violence has occurred or is likely to occur. This will include the following:
  1. Committing any act of domestic violence;
  2. Aiding or abetting in the commission of acts of domestic violence;
  3. entering the place of employment of the aggrieved person or, if the person aggrieved is a child, its school or any other place frequented by the aggrieved person;
  4. Attempting to communicate in any form, whatsoever, with the aggrieved person, including personal, oral, written, electronic or telephonic contact;
  5. Selling any property, taking over bank lockers or accounts that are used or owned by both parties, either by the person who is upset and the respondent together or just by the respondent, including her stridhan or any other property held by both parties or by each of them separately, without the Magistrate's permission;
  6. Causing violence to the dependents, other relatives or any person who gives the aggrieved person assistance from domestic violence;
  7. Committing any other act as specified in the protection order.

Analysis Of The Relevant Provisions With The Facts Of The Case
To understand the events that took place at Indra Sharma, a quick review of the facts is necessary. In 1994, the lady-appellant before the court moved in with her coworker, the respondent. Despite being aware that the respondent was married and had two children, the appellant quit her job and moved in with them. In the end, the respondent departed the appellant's business in 2006.

As a result, the appellant submitted a claim for support and other reliefs under Section 12 of the DV Act. Regarding the initial matter of maintainability, the magistrate and session courts concurrently determined that the petition was maintainable because the parties had cohabited for nearly eighteen years. They also concluded that failure to provide maintenance in the future would amount to "domestic violence."

However, the high court determined that a live-in relationship was not "one in the nature of marriage" as defined by Section 2(f) of the DV Act by using the standard established in D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaiammal. The woman who felt wronged by this decision petitioned the Supreme Court. Therefore, the Supreme Court's specific concern was whether the high court's position was correct.

At this point, it is appropriate to pause and consider how the law has evolved with regard to the rights of women in live-in relationships since the Indra Sarma ruling. Following the DV Act's passage, women in non-matrimonial partnerships filed lawsuits against their partners under its provisions.

As a result, courts were forced to evaluate the definition of "relationship in the nature of marriage" as it was used in Section 2(0) of the Act. In a ruling, the Madras High Court held that a DV Act application would be admissible if the parties were close and had previously lived together, even in the absence of a marriage proposal.

This opinion is supported by the fact that Section 2(f) of the DV Act is intended to cover all forms of abuse that a man may inflict on a woman, including situations in which the parties are related by consanguinity or adoption.

Nevertheless, this perspective misses two important aspects of Section 2(0):
First, the definition is comprehensive rather than illustrative; second, the phrase "relationship in the nature of marriage" requires that the relationship be similar to a marriage but not the same; it cannot be just any sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Stated differently, the court must determine if a relationship that lacks the formality of marriage may be understood as a commitment-based partnership between two individuals of different sexes.

Therefore, determining which connections would be considered to be within and outside of a marriage would be the only logical interpretation of the expression included in Section 2(f).

In the cases of Velusamy and Indra Sharma, the Supreme Court has sought to define the parameters of a "relationship in the nature of marriage" or what constitutes a quasi-marriage. The Supreme Court has made an effort to strike a balance between public policy considerations and women's rights.

The court has disapproved of women who deliberately participate in adultery by being in such partnerships. The duration of the relationship is not as important as these factors; for example, Indra Sarma's romance lasted almost eighteen years.

Legislators and courts have acknowledged that the rights to maintenance under the DV Act are similar to those under Section 125 of the CrPC. While debating a related matter in Chanmuniya vs. Virendra Kushwaha, the Supreme Court stated that the definition of "wife" in Section 125 of the CrPC would take some cues from the DV Act.

The Supreme Court's two-judge panel forwarded this query to a more senior bench in order to receive a binding ruling. It goes without saying that the reference bench need not feel constrained by the standards established by Velasamy and Indra Sarma. The appellant in the Indra Sarma case is a quan wife. The reference bench needs to come up with a more fair and reasonable standard so that the DV Act and other maintenance measures can apply to her.

It is humbly argued that the two-judge panel in the Indra Sarma case has reached the incorrect judgment. The bench actually should have waited for Chanmuniya's queries to be answered since they would have unquestionably had an effect on the outcome in Indra Sarma.

The ultimate line is that the Supreme Court will continue to struggle with interpreting the term "relationship in the nature of marriage" until the legislature defines it.

Written By:
  1. Pawni Nagawat, Third Year Law students at the Institute of Law Nirma University and
  2. Sakshi Chaplot, Third Year Law students at the Institute of Law Nirma University

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