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The Failure of Semantics of Shared Household

A wife is no longer her husband's chattel. She is beginning to be regarded by the laws as a partner in all affairs which are their common concern. Thus the husband can no longer turn her out of the matrimonial home.- Lord Denning

This marital partnership was supposed to assume reality through Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act giving a woman the right to reside in matrimonial household or shared household irrespective of her right or title in it so as to guard her against illegal dispossession[2]. However, the legislature has been unsuccessful in actualizing this vision into reality as one of the notorious decisions of the Supreme Court, narrowly interpreting the definition of shared household was delivered in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra[3] on 15th December, 2006[4].

The Scope of Shared Household In PWDVA

Section 2(s) of the Act defines shared household as:
a household where the person aggrieved lives or at any stage has lived in a domestic relationship either singly or along with the respondent and includes such household whether owned or tenanted either jointly by the aggrieved person and the respondent or both jointly or singly have any right, title, interest or equity and 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 shared household[5].

A plain reading of the definition of “shared household” under Section 2(s) of the Act indicates that a woman is entitled to her rights in a shared household irrespective of whether the shared household is in the name of the respondent i.e. the husband or his relatives.

The intention of the legislature to insert such comprehensive and all-encompassing definition of the “shared household” in PWDVA was for two primary purposes : Firstly, to delink the concept of ownership from possession so as to protect women from domestic violence in the form of removal or threats of removal from house in which she has no title. Secondly, to keep up with family structure in Indian households where sons even after their marriage continue to live with their parents in a house owned by them[6]. Unfortunately, this intent behind the provision had been undermined in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra.

S.R. Batra V. Taruna Batra: The Narrow Interpretation Of Shared Household

In S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra[7] the Supreme Court considered the question whether the wife had a right to reside in the premises owned by mother-in law, where she had stayed with her husband after marriage.

The Supreme Court speaking through Justice Markandey Katju held that a wife is entitled to claim right to residence only in a shared household, and a shared household would only mean the house belonging to or taken by the husband, or the house which belongs to the joint family of which the husband is a member. In the opinion of the Supreme Court it would not extend to a property which is owned by in-laws, irrespective of whether it is her matrimonial home.

The issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Taruna Batra Case is that despite section 2(s) of the Act clearly stating that a woman has a right to residence in shared household irrespective of whether she has any right, title or interest in it, the Supreme Court by restricting the right to residence only to the cases where the husband owns some property or has some share in it has curtailed the usefulness of the right to residence itself.

Further, through the analysis of definition of shared household it can be seen that there is no place for proprietary rights under PWDVA. PWDVA is an extension of deeper and profounder principles of Women’s rights. However, the Supreme Court by suggesting that if the ownership of the property is with the in-laws, the daughter in law does not have right to reside in the property, puts the element of ownership or proprietary rights over women rights.

Also, one of the sound principles followed by the courts is to give decisions based on the concrete facts and circumstances of the case before them. In the present case, instead of interpreting the law based on the concrete facts of the case, the court ventures into hypothetical and imaginary situations that the husband and wife may have lived in dozens of places like the husband's parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, etc.

Therefore, according to the judgment, if places where the husband and wife lived together were to be accepted as shared household then it would lead to chaos and would be absurd. On the basis of this specious reasoning, the judgment declares that "any interpretation which leads to absurdity should not be accepted". Such a view by Supreme Court completely negates the scheme of the act which links the term “shared household” to the concept of domestic relationship.

The Supreme Court in Taruna Batra case not only erroneously interpreted the scope of definition of the shared household but also failed to recognise the sociological pattern prevailing in India. In the Indian Societal set up it is not uncommon for sons to reside with their parents in a common household. The concept of nuclear household though on a rise, is yet to gain its stronghold on Indian Society.

These aforementioned dimensions were in entirety ignored by the Supreme Court while delivering the Judgement in SR Batra v. Taruna Batra.

A Glimmer of Hope: The Definition Of Shared Household Given Purposive Interpretation

SR Batra v. Taruna Batra[8] has adversely impacted several rights to residence cases in which women were denied the right to reside in the home belonging exclusively to the in-laws even though they had resided in the homes after the marriage.

In such a scenario, judgement delivered by Justice S. Ravindra. Bhat of Delhi High Court in Eveneet Singh v. Prakash Chaudhary& Ors[9] came as a positive aberration. The judgement examined PWDVA and the “right of residence” succinctly yet very effectively. The question that the court asked itself was “Whether the concept of ownership is the single most important factor in deciding if a woman has a right to reside in the property?”

The Delhi High Court speaking through Justice S. Ravindra Bhat held that the introduction of remedy of “right to residence” is a revolutionary and path-breaking step, taken to further the objects of the Act and if restrictive interpretation is given to the scope of definition of “shared household”, it would be contrary to the scheme and the objective of the Act itself. Further, keeping in mind that the intention of the legislature was never to exclude the right of residence against properties where husband has no right, title, share or interest, The Delhi High Court held that:

15. The definition of shared household emphasizes the factum of a domestic relationship and no investigation into the ownership of the said household is necessary, as per the definition. Even if an inquiry is made into the aspect of ownership of the household, the definition casts a wide enough net. It is couched in inclusive terms and is not in any way, exhaustive.

This is a very progressive judgement wherein Delhi High Court instead of factoring in the element of ownership in deciding the right to residence of a woman in a house which was owned by the mother-in law, explores the link between the definition of the shared household and the concept of domestic relationship[10] reaching to the conclusion that the moment it is proved that the aggrieved woman is in domestic relationship with the in-laws i.e. she is living with them in the same household as a family member, she has a right to reside in the said household irrespective of her husband having any right or title in the property.

Yet again, in Smt. Preeti Satija v. Smt. Raj Kumari[11] where mother-in- law was seeking injunction restraining her daughter-in law from entering the house which was exclusively owned by her, the High Court of Delhi contented that the S.R. Batra v. Smt. Taruna Batra overlooked the crucial definition of shared household. The Delhi High Court further observed that:

20. Parliament's intention by the 2005 Act was to secure the rights of aggrieved persons in the shared household, in respect of which the Respondent had jointly or singly any right, title, interest, or "equity". For instance, a widow or as in this case, a daughter in law, estranged from her husband living with a mother-in- law, in premises owned by the latter, falls within a domestic relationship. Therefore, the daughter-in-law is entitled to protection from dispossession, though her husband never had any ownership rights in the premises. The right is not dependent on title, but the mere factum of residence.

At the other end of the spectrum, in Roma Rajesh Tiwari v. Rajesh Dinanath Tiwari[12], (2017) SCC OnLine Bom 8906, the petitioner i.e. the daughter-in- law filed a petition against the family court's order in the Bombay High Court. The family court had ordered that since the petitioner had no right, title or interest in the said property which is exclusively owned by father-in-law, she had no right to claim relief.

Delivering opinion for the Bench, Justice Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi observed that words 'whether or not the respondent has a legal or equitable interest in the shared household' are of utmost significance, when the right of the aggrieved person, i.e. the wife, is to be decided so far as her residence in shared household is concerned.

In this context, the Bombay High Court further observed:
18... Domestic Violence Act was brought in the Statute Book with the clear language and the unequivocal Clause that the title of the husband or that of the family members to the said flat is totally irrelevant. It is also irrelevant whether the Respondent has a legal or equitable interest in the shared household. The moment it is proved that it was a shared household, as both of them had, in their matrimonial relationship, i.e. domestic relationship, resided together there and in this case, up to the disputes arose, it follows that the Petitioner-wife gets right to reside therein and, therefore, to get the order of interim injunction, restraining Respondent-husband from dispossessing her, or, in any other manner, disturbing her possession from the said flat.

Concluding Thoughts
The Judgement of Delhi High Court and Bombay High Court by distinguishing the fact scenario from the Taruna Batra Judgement establish an optimistic deviation from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the ‘shared household conundrum’. Fortunately, these cases exhaustively interpreted the definition of “shared household” and reflected the intention of the legislature to delink the concept of ownership from possession.

This however does not mean that the precedent of S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra has ceased to eclipse the decision making where the extent or the scope of shared household is put into analysis. A recent reiteration was observed in Manju Gupta v. Pankaj Gupta[13], a case decided by Delhi High Court on August 30, 2018. A single Judge Bench comprising of Justice R.K. Gauba relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra and dismissed a petition filed by the petitioner-wife for a right to possession in the house owned by her father-in-law.

Thus, in milieu of the aforesaid analysis of the restrictive interpretation of the semantics of ‘shared household’ in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra, a case which has left and continues to leave many women in distress and without any remedy, it is explicit that even if the legislature enacts a law with a view to bring equality in home, its ultimate success depends on how it is interpreted by the Judiciary.

[1] Alfred Thomas Denning, The Due Process of Law, 212 (1st ed., 1980)
[2] S.17, The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act,2005
[3] S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra,(2007) 3 SCC 169
[4] 15/12/2006
[5] S.2(s),The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act,2005
[6] Pinki Mathur Anurang, But ...Where Will I live? , 65,88 in Conflict in the Shared Household: Domestic Violence and the Law in India( Indira Jaising, Pinki Mathur Anurag., 1st ed.,2019)
[7] S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra,(2007) 3 SCC 169
[8] S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra,(2007) 3 SCC 169
[9] Eveneet Singh v. Prakash Chaudhary & Ors, (2010) SCC OnLine Del 4507
[10] Section 2(f), 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.
[11] Smt. Preeti Satija v. Smt. Raj Kumari, (2014) SCC Online Del 188
[12] Roma Rajesh Tiwari v. Rajesh Dinanath Tiwari[12], (2017) SCC OnLine Bom 8906
[13] Manju Gupta v. Pankaj Gupta[13], (2018) SCC OnLine Del 1133

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