Wednesday, December 6, 2023

No Easy Way Out

Slamming a petitioner who refused to pay maintenance to his wife and daughter claiming he was on study leave, the Madras High Court said his duty to them cannot take a back seat

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On September 12, the Madras High Court refused to entertain an appeal against a family court order which directed a husband to give Rs 25,000 for the maintenance of his wife and minor daughter. The division bench of Justices R Subramanian and R Kalaimathi observed that merely because he had taken a study holiday or an academic break, his duty to maintain his wife and child cannot take the back seat.

The main petition was filed by the appellant, S Vigneshwaran, seeking divorce on the ground of cruelty. Pending the petition, the wife sought interim maintenance at Rs 1,00,000 every month for herself and their minor daughter. This was resisted by the husband, who contended that he had taken a break from his job for doing PhD and he was only in part-time employment and drawing Rs 20,000 per month. Therefore, the maintenance claimed by the wife should not be granted.

At the hearing, the wife, apart from producing details of business carried on by the husband, also produced details of agricultural land holdings of the husband. Considering the cumulative effect of the documents, the family court had granted Rs 12,500 per month each to the wife and the daughter as interim maintenance.

However, Suchit Anant Palande, the counsel for the appellant, said that the maintenance awarded by the family court was on the higher side. The Court said: “We are unable to accept his submissions. The amount awarded in our opinion would be just about sufficient for sustenance of one human being at the cost of living today.” The bench stated that the amount of Rs 12,500 was, in fact, very meagre.

The Hindu law or family law in India recognises the right of a wife, children, aged parents and widowed daughter or daughter-in-law to receive maintenance. A person is entitled to basic amenities like food, clothing, shelter and other necessary requirements to live a dignified life. Under the principles of social justice, it is the natural duty of a man to provide these amenities to his wife, parents and children in the form of maintenance.

Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, lays down the concept of maintenance in India, along with the different personal laws that extend the right of maintenance to not only the wife, but also to her parents and children as well.

However, procedures provided under Section 125 of the CrPC are of a summary nature and apply to everyone regardless of caste, creed, or religion. Maintenance can be sought under individual personal laws of other religions, and processes under such personal laws are civil in nature.

In Badshah vs Urmila Badshah Godse and Anr (2013), the Supreme Court explained the justification for granting maintenance by stating that the purpose is to achieve “social justice” which is the Constitutional vision enshrined in the Preamble. The Preamble clearly signals that we have chosen the democratic path under rule of law to achieve the goal of securing for all its citizens, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It specifically highlights achieving social justice. Therefore, it becomes the bounden duty of courts to advance the cause of social justice. While giving interpretation to a particular provision, the Court is supposed to bridge the gap between law and society.

In such cases, purposive interpretation needs to be given to the provisions of Section 125 CrPC. While dealing with the application of destitute wives or hapless children or parents under this provision, courts are dealing with the marginalised sections of society. Maintenance is provided with the goal of strengthening the poor and attaining social justice, or individual equality and dignity. It encapsulates societal ideals.

Apart from the social-economic inequalities accentuating the disabilities of the poor in an unequal fight, the adversarial process itself operates to the disadvantage of the weaker party. In such a situation, the judge has to be not only sensitive to the inequalities of parties involved, but also positively inclined to the weaker party if the imbalance were not to result in miscarriage of justice. This result is achieved by what we call social context judging or social justice adjudication.

The object of the maintenance proceedings is not to punish a person for his past neglect, but to prevent vagrancy by compelling those who can provide support to those who are unable to do so and who have a moral claim to support.

The apex court in Bhuwan Mohan Singh vs Meena & Ors (2014) held that Section 125 of the CrPC was conceived to ameliorate the agony, anguish and financial suffering of a woman who left her matrimonial home for the reasons provided in the provision so that some suitable arrangements can be made by the Court and she can sustain herself and also her children if they are with her.

The concept of sustenance does not necessarily mean to lead the life of an animal, feel like an unperson to be thrown away from grace and roam for her basic maintenance somewhere else. She is entitled in law to lead a life in the similar manner as she would have lived in the house of her husband. That is where status and strata come into play, and that is where the obligations of the husband, in case of a wife, become a prominent one.

In a proceeding of this nature, the husband cannot take subterfuges to deprive her of the benefit of living with dignity. It is the obligation of the husband to see that the wife does not become a destitute, a beggar. A situation is not to be maladroitly created where she is compelled to resign to her fate and think of life “dust unto dust”. It is totally impermissible, the Court said.

In fact, it is the sacrosanct duty to render the financial support even if the husband is required to earn money with physical labour, if he is able bodied. There is no escape route unless there is an order from the Court that the wife is not entitled to get maintenance from the husband on any legally permissible grounds.

In 2015, the Orissa High Court ruled that joblessness cannot be a ground for a husband to deny payment of maintenance or permanent alimony to wife. The division bench of Justices Vinod Prasad and KR Mohapatra said that if the husband is able bodied and mentally sound, he cannot take a lame excuse of losing his job or pursuing LLB course to avoid payment of maintenance and/or permanent alimony to his wife, who is a destitute and unemployed.

In this case, the family court had dissolved Sandhyarani’s marriage with Sachikanta Rath, 42, by a decree of divorce, but had made no order for permanent alimony and did not record any reasons for it. Sandhyarani claimed that she was unemployed and depended on her old father for food and other basic needs. Her husband, Sachikanta, was serving as a vocational teacher at the time of their marriage. Later, he left the job and joined an LLB course to avoid payment of maintenance to her, Sandhyarani alleged, while seeking direction for payment of Rs 15 lakh in permanent alimony. Sachikanta refused to pay on the plea that he was unemployed and an LLB student. The bench said that leaving a job and joining a law course could not absolve a husband of his responsibility towards wife.

On August 31, the Delhi High Court directed former Chief Minister of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah to pay a maintenance of Rs 1,50,000 per month to his estranged wife Payal Abdullah. A single bench of Justice Subramonium Prasad said that he was a man of means and had access to financial privilege that evades the common man. The Court stated that even if the wife had sufficient financial means to sustain herself, the husband cannot wash his hands off the responsibilities that are bestowed upon him when it comes to the upbringing of his children. 

—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau

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