IN a much awaited observation on live-in relationships, the Supreme Court opined that a man and a woman living together without marriage cannot be construed as an offence. “When two people want to live together, what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence?” a special three-Judge Bench constituting the Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices Deepak Verma and B.S. Chauhan observed. The Supreme Court said that there was no law prohibiting live-in relationships or pre-marital sex. “Living together is a right to live” the Supreme Court said, apparently referring to Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees right to life and personal liberty as a fundamental right. The Supreme Court made the observation while reserving its judgment on a Special Leave Petition filed by a noted South Indian actress, Khushboo seeking to quash 22 criminal cases filed against her after she allegedly endorsed pre-marital sex in interviews to various magazines in 2005 (S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal and Anr. 2010 (4) SCALE 462).
Live-in relation i.e. cohabitation is an arrangement whereby two people decide to live together on a long-term or permanent basis in an emotionally and/or sexually intimate relationship. The term is most frequently applied to couples who are not married.
Position of live-in relationships in India
In India, cohabitation had been a taboo since British rule. However, this is no longer true in big cities, but is still often found in rural areas with more conservative values. Female live-in partners have economic rights under Protections of Women and Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
The Maharashtra Government in October 2008 approved a proposal suggesting that a woman involved in a live-in relationship for a 'reasonable peroid', should get the status of a wife. Whether a period is a 'reasonable period' or not is determined by the facts and circumstances of each case.
The National Commission for Women recommended to the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 30th June, 2008 that the definition of 'wife' as described in section 125 of Cr.P.C., must include women involved in a live-in relationship. The aim of the recommendation was to harmonise the provisions of law dealing with protection of women from domestic violence and also to put a live-in couple's relationship at par with that of a legally married couple. There was a Committee set up by the Supreme Court for this purpose, called the Justice Malimath Committee, which observed that “if a man and a woman are living together as husband and wife for a reasonable long period, the man shall be deemed to have married the woman.”
The Malimath Committee had also suggested that the word 'wife' under Cr.P.C. be amended to include a 'woman living with the man like his wife' so that even a woman having a live-in relationship with a man would also be entitled to alimony. On 16.09.2009, the Supreme Court in a case (Abhijit Bhikaseth Auti v. State Of Maharashtra and Others) observed that it is not necessary for a woman to strictly establish the marriage, to claim maintenance under section 125 of Cr.P.C. A woman in a live-in relationship may also claim maintenance under section 125 Cr.P.C.
In a case (Payal Katara v. Superintendent Nari Niketan Kandri Vihar Agra and Others.) the Allahabad High Court ruled out that “a lady of about 21 years of age being a major, has the right to live with a man even without getting married, if both so wish”. The Supreme Court observed that a man and woman, if involved in a live-in relationship for a long period, they will be treated as a married couple and their child would be considered as legitimate.
Legitimacy of the child born out of a live-in relationship
The Supreme Court on an earlier occasion, while deciding a case involving the legitimacy of a child born out of wedlock has ruled that if a man and a woman are involved in a live-in relationship for a long period, they will be treated as a married couple and their child would be legitimate. Also, the recent changes introduced in law through the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 gives protection to women involved in such relationships for a 'reasonable long period' and promises them the status of wives. A Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice Arijit Pasayat declared that children born out of such a relationship will no more be called illegitimate. “Law inclines in the interest of legitimacy and thumbs down 'whoreson' or 'fruit of adultery'.”
The Supreme Court held that a child born out of a live-in relationship is not entitled to claim inheritance in Hindu ancestral coparcenary property (in the case of an undivided joint Hindu family) and can only claim a share in the parents' self-acquired property. The Bench set aside a Madras High Court judgment, which held that children born out of live-in relationships were entitled to a share in ancestral property as there was a presumption of marriage in view of the long relationship.
Reiterating an earlier ruling, a Vacation Bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and Swatanter Kumar said, “In view of the legal fiction contained in Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (legitimacy of children of void and voidable marriages), the illegitimate children, for all practical purposes, including succession to the properties of their parents, have to be treated as legitimate. They cannot, however, succeed to the properties of any other relation on the basis of this rule, which in its operation, is limited to the properties of the parents.”
A child can only make a claim on the person's self acquired property, in case the child is illegitimate. It can also be interpreted in a way in which a child could lay a claim on the share of a parents' ancestral property as they can ask for that parents' share in such property, as Section 16 permits a share in the parents' property. Hence, it could be argued that the person is not only entitled to self acquired property but also a share in the ancestral property.
The Apex Court also stated that while the marriage exists, a spouse cannot claim the live-in relationship with some other person and seek inheritance for the children from the property of that other person. The relationship with some other person, while the husband is living is not 'live-in relationship' but 'adultery' (Bharatha Matha & Anr. v. R.Vijaya Renganathan & Ors. 2010 STPL(Web) 406 SC). It is further clarified that 'live in relationship' is permissible in unmarried heterosexuals (in case, one of the said persons is married, the man may be guilty of adultery and it would amount to an offence under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code).
Conclusion and suggestions
The law does not prescribe how we should live; it is ethics and social norms which explain the essence of living in welfare model. The Court itself notices that what law sees as no crime may still be immoral. It has said in a judgement of 2006, notices by the Court now, that two consenting adults engaging in sex is not an offence in law “even though it may be perceived as immoral.” (Lata Singh v. State of U.P. and Anr. AIR 2006 SC 2522). Of course, such protective sanctions may potentially lead to complications that could otherwise be avoided. But simply raising the hammer may not be the best route to taming the bold and the brave. This is not the first time live-in relationship is in the ambit of debates and discussions. There has been a long-standing controversy whether a relationship between a man and a woman living together without marriage can be recognised by law. With changing social hypothesis entering the society, in most places, it is legal for unmarried people to live together. Now even in a country like India bounded by innumerable cultural ethics and rites, the law finds legally nothing wrong in live-in relationships.
This, however, cannot be construed that law promotes such relationships. Law traditionally has been biased in favour of marriage. It reserves many rights and privileges to married persons to preserve and encourage the institution of marriage. Such stands, in particular cases of live-in relationship, it appears that, by and large, is based on the assumption that they are not between equals and therefore women must be protected by the courts from the patriarchal power that defines marriage, which covers these relationships too.
The writer is a 5th year BALLB, M.S.Ramaiah College of Law, Bangalore. This is an abridged version of her article.