“Shared Household” revisited: Analysing the Satish Chander Ahuja Judgement

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Introduction

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDV Act) was enacted by the Parliament for providing protection to the rights of women who are victims of violence occurring within the domestic sphere. This act provides a comprehensive and wide definition of domestic violence which includes not only physical abuse but also sexual, verbal and economic abuse[1]. The act, inter alia, provides the victims of domestic violence the right to reside in the shared household, and also provides the victim with the relief that she can restrain the respondent from dispossessing her from the shared household.

The definition of shared household has been provided in section 2(s) of the PWDV Act. It goes as under:

“shared household” means 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 a household whether owned or tenanted either jointly by the aggrieved person and the respondent, or owned or tenanted by either of them in respect of which either the aggrieved person or 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 the shared household.  

Thus, shared household is that household in which the aggrieved person lives or has lived in a domestic relationship with the respondent. Domestic relationship means a relationship between two persons who live or have lived together in a shared household and who are related by consanguinity, marriage, relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members [Section 2 (f)]. Respondent means a person who is or has been in a domestic relationship with the aggrieved person and against whom the aggrieved person has sought any relief. [Section 2(q)].

Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja[2]  was decided on 15 October 2020. Among other issues, this case dealt with the issue of interpretation of the term “shared household”. The highlight of this case is the discussion by the court on the factors that are required to be considered for a house to be called a “shared household”, whereby the court overruled the 2007 judgement of S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra[3] which was the precedent on the interpretation of the term “shared household”, saying that it did not lay down the correct law[4]. This article presents an analysis of the case with respect to the discussion around the issue of “shared household”, the decision of the court regarding the true interpretation of Section 2(s) and the significance of the decision for the victims of domestic violence seeking a relief under the PWDV Act.

Factual Situation of the case

Satish Chander Ahuja (appellant) had purchased his house in 1983. In 1995, his son, Raveen Ahuja, was married to Sneha Ahuja (respondent). The couple started living on the first floor of the house. Then in July 2014, a marital discord occurred between Raveen and Sneha, due to which Raveen started living in the ground floor of the house along with his parents, while his wife Sneha lived alone on the first floor. Then in November 2014, Raveen filed a divorce petition against Sneha under Section 13(1) (ia) and (iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, citing cruelty suffered at the hands of Sneha. Then in November 2015, Sneha filed an application under Section 12 of the PWDV Act, 2005 alleging that her in-laws had subjected her to severe emotional and mental abuse.

After this, Satish Chander Ahuja filed a suit against Sneha Ahuja praying for mandatory and permanent injunction against Sneha Ahuja for removing her from his house so that he can live a peaceful life. The trial court awarded both the injunctions. Aggrieved by this, Sneha Ahuja approached the Delhi High Court, which set aside the decree of the trial court. Then Satish Ahuja approached the Supreme Court in appeal against the decision of the Delhi High Court, which resulted in the present case.

 The Court discussed, inter alia, the following issue: Whether the definition of shared household under Section 2(s) has to be read to mean that shared household can only be either that which is the joint family household or that in which the husband of the aggrieved person has a share?

The S.R. Batra judgement

The appellant (Satish Chander Ahuja) relied on the 2007 Supreme Court judgement given in S.R. Batra v Taruna Batra[5] for arguing that the respondent (Sneha Ahuja) can’t claim his house to be a shared household. It is pertinent here to mention in brief the ruling given in the S.R. Batra case so as to have a better understanding of the contention of the appellant.

In S.R. Batra the facts were that the respondent (Taruna Batra) was married to the son (Amit Batra) of the appellant and they lived in the house which was owned by the appellant (mother-in-law of respondent) and in that house her son Amit Batra had no share or interest. Later a marital discord occurred between the respondent and her husband and he filed a divorce petition while the respondent filed a criminal case of domestic violence by her in-laws. The case after going through various stages finally came up before the Supreme Court.

The issue to be decided was whether the house of the appellant was a shared household within the meaning of the PWDV Act so as to entitle the respondent to a right to residence in the said house as per Section 17[6] of the PWDV Act. The respondent’s counsel argued that since the respondent had lived in the house in the past, hence it is a shared household as per section 2(s) of PWDV Act, by virtue of the phrase “at any stage has lived” given in the section. The court refused to accept this argument and said that if such a view is accepted, then the respondent will be entitled to claim shared household in any house where she and her husband had lived for some time in the past, like her husband’s grandfather’s house, brother’s house, his maternal parents’ house etc. Such a view is very absurd and would lead to chaos.

The court opined that a shared household means the house which belongs to or is taken on rent by the husband, or the house which is a property of the joint family of which the husband is a member. The court noted that none of these requirements are satisfied in the present case. In fact, the house is the exclusive property of the mother-in-law of respondent. So, the court held that, since the husband Amit Batra did not have any share or interest in the house, it cannot be considered a “shared household” within section 2(s) of PWDV Act, 2005.

The appellant in the Satish Chander Ahuja case relied on the S.R. Batra case to argue that since the house in question belonged to him and his son neither has any right, title or interest in the property nor the house is a joint family property of which the son is a member, therefore the house is not a shared household within the meaning of Section 2(s) of PWDV Act.

Decision of the Court

The court disagreed with the above-mentioned argument of the appellant. The Court said that the phrase “at any stage has lived” given in section 2(s) has been incorrectly interpreted in the S.R. Batra case. This phrase has been used to protect women from being denied the benefit of right to live in a shared household on the ground that on the date of filing of application, she was excluded from the possession of the house or was temporarily absent from the house. It has not been used with the objective that wherever the aggrieved woman has lived with her husband and relatives, all such houses shall become a shared household. This was not the intention of the legislature behind the inclusion of this phrase. Thus, the court held that the S. R. Batra case does not lay down correct law, and overruled it.

Commenting on the meaning that should be given to the phrase “lives or at any stage has lived” in section 2(s), the court said that the living in a household should have some permanency. Mere casual residence at different places would not make a shared household. The intention of the parties and the nature of the living, including the nature of the household have to be seen in order to determine whether the parties intended the premises to be a shared household or not[7].

Finally, the court said that after perusal of the definition of shared household under 2(s), the contention cannot be accepted that shared household can be only that one which either belongs to the husband or is taken on rent by him or is a joint family property. If a household belongs to a relative of the husband with which the aggrieved woman has lived in a domestic relationship, the conditions of Section 2(s) are satisfied and the house will become a shared household.  

Thus, the court rejected the contention of the appellant and decided the issue in favor of the respondent.

Significance of the decision

Section 17 of the PWDV Act provides that every woman who is in a domestic relationship shall have the right to reside in the shared household whether or not she has any right, title or interest in the same. It is a pre-requisite to this right to reside that the house in respect to which she seeks the right must be a “shared household” within the meaning of the PWDV Act. Once this is established, the woman is eligible for the right, and under no other law can this right be denied to her. It is therefore very important for a woman who seeks the right to reside in her matrimonial house, that the house should be a “shared household”.

The erstwhile precedent on the issue of shared household, the S.R. Batra judgement, interpreted section 2(s) of PWDV Act in such a way that a woman who approached a court under PWDV Act for securing her right to residence would not be allowed the right if the house is the self-acquired property of her father or mother-in-law. Now, a house where a woman lives since her marriage is her matrimonial home, and she treats it as her own home, regardless of whether her husband has any share in it or not. So, the proposition of refusing to grant a woman the right to reside in such a house merely because her husband has no share in it is very unreasonable and unjust towards the woman. However, this unjust proposition itself was affirmed by the court in S.R. Batra. The judgement thus was detrimental to the rights of women who are victims of domestic violence and also harmed the very purpose for which the act was enacted i.e., the protection of rights of victims of domestic violence.

S.R. Batra was overruled by the court in the present case. By overruling it, the court has provided a big relief to the victims of domestic violence and has also removed an obstacle which would hinder them from seeking justice. The court has now opened the doors of justice for those women who are victims of domestic violence but could not claim a right to reside in their matrimonial home because of the sole reason that their husband did not have any right, title or interest in the house and the house is owned by her in-laws. Now, the factor which is necessary for a house to be considered a shared household is the nature of living of the parties and the nature of the household, and if a consideration of these factors, along with a reading of Section 2(s), indicates that the house was of the nature of a shared household, then the woman will be allowed the right to reside in the house regardless of who owned the house. Thus, the decision given by the Supreme Court in Satish Chander Ahuja case is a shot in the arm to the women who are victims of domestic violence and are seeking the restoration of their right to reside under the PWDV Act. This decision not only ensures justice to the aggrieved woman, but it also furthers the objectives of the PWDV Act, which, according to the court, is “a step to secure social justice by legislation” and has been enacted to “give a higher right in the favor of the woman”[8].  

Conclusion

“The progress of any society depends on its ability to protect and promote the rights of women”: this observation of the court in the present case succinctly describes the need to have a robust legal system for the protection of the women’s rights in India[9]. The PWDV Act is a great effort towards realizing that need. It contains many provisions which are beneficial and helpful for women in their quest for securing their rights. However, the interpretation of shared household as provided in the S.R. Batra judgement was detrimental to women’s rights and it also tended to defeat the purpose for which the PWDV Act was enacted. By overruling this case, the Satish Chander Ahuja judgement has taken a progressive step towards protecting and strengthening women’s rights in India. This judgement is one which will prove to be very beneficial to women who seek to secure their right of residence in their matrimonial home.


[1] Id., s. 3  

[2] (Civil Appeal No. 2483 of 2020)

[3] (2007) 3 SCC 169

[4] Supra note 3 at Paragraph 64

[5] Ibid

[6] Section 17 provides for the Right to reside in a shared household. It says that every woman in a domestic relationship has a right to reside in the shared household, whether or not she has any right, title or beneficial interest in the same. 

[7] Supra note 3 at Paragraph 63 

[8] Aneesha Mathur, “Victims of domestic violence have a right to residence at shared household owned by in-laws: SC”, India Today, 15th October 2020, available at <https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/victims-of-domestic-violence-have-a-right-to-residence-at-shared-household-owned-by-in-laws-sc-1731977-2020-10-15&gt; (8th February 2021)

[9] Ananthakrishnan G, “Supreme Court: Woman has right of residence in ‘shared household’ of in-laws”, The Indian Express, 16th October 2020, available at   <https://indianexpress.com/article/india/supreme-court-woman-has-right-of-residence-in-shared-household-of-in-laws-6747697/&gt; (9th February 2021)    

Author: Rohit Ranjan

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India.

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