Women’s Right to Residence under the Domestic Violence Act: An Expansive Interpretation
In an important verdict safeguarding the interests of women victims of domestic violence, the Supreme Court on May 12, 2022, held that a victim of domestic violence can enforce her right to reside in a shared household, irrespective of whether she lived in the shared household. The Court dealt with the expression ‘the right to reside in a shared household’ in the context of Indian women and said it needed “expansive interpretation” and “cannot be restricted to the actual residence but can be extended to other homes irrespective of one’s right over the property.”
A bench of Justices M R Shah and B V Nagarathna in Criminal Appeal No. 511 of 2022 in the case of Prabha Tyagi v. Kamlesh Devi, while hearing a plea of a domestic violence victim after she was widowed, dealt with the unique situation of Indian women who live at places different from matrimonial homes, such as the workplaces of their husbands. The court also went on to treat each individual aspect of the expression ’women’s right to reside in a shared household’ under the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (D.V. Act), giving to rest the varied opinions of multiple High Courts on the matter.
Constructive Residence Sufficient
The court clarified that it was not mandatory for an aggrieved person, when she was related by consanguinity, marriage or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or family members living together as a joint family, to actually reside with those persons against whom the allegations had been levelled at the time of the commission of domestic violence.
The court explained the matter by way of illustration, stating that there could be several situations and circumstances in which every woman in a domestic relationship can enforce her right to reside in a shared household irrespective of whether she has any right, title or beneficial interest in the same, and that the said right could be enforced by any woman under the said provision as an independent right.
The court further added that in India, it is a societal norm for a woman, on her marriage, to reside with her husband, unless due to professional, occupational or job commitments, or for other genuine reasons, the husband and wife decide to reside at different locations. Even in a case where the woman in a domestic relationship is residing elsewhere on account of a reasonable cause, she has the right to reside in a shared household.
Moreover, a woman who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship has the right to reside not only in the house of her husband, if it is in another place which is also a shared household, but also in the shared household, which may be in a different location that where the family of her husband resides.
Subsisting Domestic Relationship
The court categorically stated that the words ‘has been’ and ‘have lived’ appearing in the definition of ‘aggrieved person’ and ‘respondent’ in the D.V. Act were plain and clear and they took in their sweep even a past relationship. Therefore, it was not necessary that at the time of filing of an application by an aggrieved person, the domestic relationship should be subsisting, and if the accused, at any point of time, had lived with the aggrieved person or had the right to live and had been subjected to domestic violence or later subjected to domestic violence on account of a domestic relationship, then the aggrieved person is entitled to file an application under Section 12 of the D.V. Act and claim relief under the law.
The bench further clarified that a woman in a domestic relationship who is not aggrieved, in the sense that she has not been subjected to an act of domestic violence by the respondent, has a right to reside in a shared household. Thus, a mother, daughter, sister, wife, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law or such other categories of women in a domestic relationship have the right to reside in a shared household de hors a right, title or beneficial interest in the same. Therefore, the right of residence of the aforesaid categories of women and such other categories of women in a domestic relationship is guaranteed under Sub-Section (1) of Section 17 and she cannot be evicted, excluded or thrown out of such a household even in the absence of there being any form of domestic violence. Hence, the expression ‘right to reside in a shared household’ has to be given an expansive interpretation. If any of the categories of women mentioned above is evicted from a shared household, she becomes an ‘aggrieved person’ within the meaning of Section 17 of the DV Act.
The court further clarified that the act, being a piece of civil code, is applicable to every woman in India, irrespective of her religious affiliation and/or social background, for a more effective protection of their rights. Thus, the expression ‘family members living together as a joint family’, means the members living jointly as a family. In such an interpretation, even a girl child or children who are cared for as foster children also have a right to live in a shared household and are conferred with the right.
Domestic Incidence Report
The court pointed out that in cases where an aggrieved person independently makes an application before the Magistrate, there would be no requirement on the part of the Magistrate to consider or call for a Domestic Incident Report. However, in cases where the application has been made by a Protection Officer or a service provider on behalf of the aggrieved person, the same shall be mandatorily accompanied by a Domestic Incident Report and when such a report is submitted, the Magistrate is required to take such report into consideration.
Hence, Section 12 of the DV Act does not make it mandatory for a Magistrate to consider a Domestic Incident Report filed by a Protection Officer or service provider before passing any order under the Act. Even in the absence of a “Domestic Incident Report”, relief such as the right to reside in shared matrimonial homes can be enforced and the Magistrate is empowered to pass both an ex parte or interim as well as a final order.
The court in this case, provided a massive relief to women considering the unique societal context in India where most women are not educated and do not have financial independence so as to live alone. In that scenario, they may be dependent for residence in a domestic relationship not only for emotional support but also for economic support.
With additional clarification of the applicability of the code irrespective of religion, relationship, or rights over property, the court has conjured up a clear picture of the scope of the act. In doing so, the court sought to reflect the legislative intent and internal policy as apparent from the language in the enactment and its object. However, the bench in a later case did observe that it was not in favour of a carte-blanche right of residence to women in matrimonial homes. If the woman was accused of misbehaving, conditions could be imposed by the court not to trouble the elderly and family members. The court could also direct the provider to offer alternate accommodation or monetary value of rent in such circumstances.
With additional clarification of the applicability of the code irrespective of religion, relationship, or rights over property, the court has conjured up a clear picture of the scope of the act. In doing so, the court sought to reflect the legislative intent and internal policy as apparent from the language in the enactment and its object.