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Mental Cruelty and Divorce

The Delhi High Court recently ruled that a woman repeatedly leaving her matrimonial home without any fault of her husband is an act of mental cruelty. The Court in another case also granted divorce to celebrity chef Kunal Kapur on the grounds of cruelty committed by his estranged wife. Courts define the meaning of cruelty according to their own interpretation within the boundary of the law

The Delhi High Court recently observed that marriage “blooms” in the “fertile soil of mutual support, devotion and allegiance”, and distance and abandonment breaks this bond beyond repair. The ruling in a recent case was based on the premise that a woman repeatedly leaving her matrimonial home without any fault of her husband is an act of mental cruelty. 

The bench of Justices Suresh Kumar Kait and Neena Bansal Krishna was dealing with an appeal challenging an order passed by a family court which dismissed a petition for divorce filed under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

The case involved a matrimonial dispute between a couple, both of whom are doctors. The man in his petition cited various instances of cruelty and desertion by his wife over the course of their 19-year-old marriage. These instances include disagreements over finances, interference from the wife’s family, arguments over family functions as well as multiple separations initiated by the wife. The man further submitted in his plea that his wife’s behaviour caused significant distress and disruption to their family life, particularly affecting their children. However, the wife in her defence alleged mistreatment by her husband’s family, particularly his mother, whom she accused of abusive behaviour and interference. 

The family court had earlier ruled that the husband had failed to substantiate allegations of cruelty and desertion against his wife. Consequently, the divorce petition filed by the husband was dismissed.

The High Court bench after hearing both the parties noted that the evidence presented by the wife failed to demonstrate any cruelty on the part of her husband. Rather, it revealed dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the behaviour of the wife’s mother, leading to the husband feeling a lack of space, control and respect in the matrimonial home, prompting the wife to leave. The wife’s repeated withdrawals from the matrimonial home without any fault on the part of the husband constituted acts of mental cruelty inflicted upon the husband without justification.

The Court further stated that the family court judge had dissected each incident individually and separately, but life is not made up of isolated incidents. Each day-to-day experience adds up to the next day and the entire period of matrimonial relationship has to be considered as a whole. Instances of cruelty are not to be taken in isolation, but the cumulative effect of facts and circumstances emerging from evidence has to be taken into consideration to draw a fair inference whether a spouse had been subjected to mental cruelty due to conduct of the partner. 

The bench also opined that there was sufficient evidence to show that it was the wife who subjected the husband to a life of uncertainty with there being no settlement and mental peace in their matrimonial life, despite 19 years of living together. It was a case of inflicting mental agony on the husband and he was entitled to divorce, on the grounds of cruelty under Section 13 (1) (ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

The High Court looked into Bipinchandra Jai Singhbai Shah vs Prabhavati, where the Supreme Court explained that the essential ingredients for proving the grounds of desertion are factum deserendi (an intention to desert the respondent for a permanent period). Additionally, the desertion should have been without any reasonable cause and for a period of more than two years before filling of the petition. Therefore, the Court set aside the impugned judgment and granted divorce to the parties. 

In another recent similar case, Pramod vs Umesh @poonam, a petition was filed in the Delhi High Court by the husband under Section 28 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, read with Section 19 of the Family Courts Act, 1984. The division bench of Suresh Kumar Kait and Neena Bansal Krishna opined that temporary separation gave a sense of insecurity in the spouse’s mind that the other was not willing to continue the matrimonial bond. In the present case, it had been clearly demonstrated that soon after their marriage, parties had marital conflicts. The wife had no intention to live in a joint family and make herself comfortable. She left her matrimonial home very frequently to live with her parents. Whereas, on the other hand, the husband by arranging separate accommodation tried his best to keep her happy, but by choosing to stay with her parents, the wife had ignored her matrimonial obligations and deprived the husband of his fatherhood by keeping him away from their son. Thus, the Court opined that the husband was subjected to cruelty by the wife, and accordingly, set aside the impugned judgment of the family court and granted divorce to the husband under Section 13 (1) (ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act.

In another similar case in February 2024, the Delhi High Court granted divorce to a man on the grounds of cruelty by his wife who was under the influence of her parents and could not “wean away” from them to forge a relationship with him. A bench headed by Justice Suresh Kumar Kait said it was “evident” that there was an “unwarranted interference of the parents and the family members” of the wife in the matrimonial life, which caused immense harassment to the husband. The High Court, while deciding the husband’s appeal against a family court order refusing to grant him divorce, observed that the parties were residing separately for about 13 years during which the husband was deprived of his conjugal relationship and also faced multiple complaints before different agencies, which were “acts of cruelty”. Therefore, the bench concluded that the husband had been able to successfully prove that he was subjected to cruelty by his wife and was entitled to divorce.

In another recent case, celebrity chef Kunal Kapur was granted divorce on grounds of cruelty by his wife on April 2, 2024. The Delhi High Court granted divorce to Kapur on the grounds of cruelty committed by his estranged wife, stating that the woman’s treatment of him was devoid of respect and empathy. The Court accepted Kapur’s appeal challenging a family court order denying him divorce, ruling that making reckless, slanderous, humiliating and baseless charges against a spouse in public constitutes cruelty. 

“In the light of the aforenoted facts of the present case, we find that the conduct of the respondent (wife) towards the appellant (husband) has been such that it is devoid of dignity and empathy towards him. When such is the nature of one spouse towards the other, it brings disgrace to the very essence of marriage and there exists no possible reason as to why he should be compelled to live while enduring the agony of living together,” a bench of Justices Suresh Kumar Kait and Neena Bansal Krishna stated. The Court said that while disagreements are an unavoidable part of any marriage when such disagreements take the shape of disdain and inconsideration for a spouse, the marriage loses its sanctity.

In another case, Saurabh Jain vs Neha Jain, which was decided on March 21, 2024, the same division bench concluded that “to be openly humiliated and being called as impotent by respondent-wife, in front of others and for respondent to discuss their sexual life in the presence of family members, could only be termed as an act of humiliation causing mental cruelty to appellant”. The Court thus granted divorce to the husband on the grounds of cruelty under Section 13 (1) (ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act.

There are many grounds for divorce provided by law, but what is evident is how the courts have interpreted cruelty within the boundaries of law according to individual situations. From the cases mentioned above, it is clear that cruelty cannot be restricted in terms of physical harm, but it has the meaning beyond that. Courts have begun redefining the meaning of cruelty according to their own interpretation, but within the boundary of the law. 

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal Bureau

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