20th October 2023,Mumbai: In a recent landmark ruling, the Kerala High Court issued a significant interpretation of Indian law, specifically Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 498A, which deals with cruelty against married women. Justice Sophy Thomas, while delivering the judgment, emphasized that women seeking redress under Section 498A must be legally married to the accused or his family members. This decision has far-reaching implications for individuals in live-in relationships and the applicability of this section.
Section 498A and Its Application
Justice Sophy Thomas underscored that Section 498A of the IPC is meant to address cases of cruelty towards legally married women. To seek protection under this provision, a woman must be married to a man accused of cruelty or to a man whose family members face such accusations. This interpretation clarifies the intended scope of the law.
Live-in Relationships and the Legal Perspective
The court’s ruling has ignited a debate regarding the legal recognition of live-in relationships in India. Justice Thomas made it clear that women in live-in relationships, even those based on a “marriage agreement,” cannot invoke Section 498A. Such relationships lack the legal sanctity required for the application of this section.
The Case at Hand: A Tragic Story
This ruling came as the Kerala High Court was examining the case of a woman who tragically ended her own life by setting herself on fire. Allegedly, she took this extreme step due to the cruelty and harassment she faced after eloping with a man. The incident occurred in 1997, and the subsequent legal proceedings led to a significant judicial review.
The Conviction and Appeals
In 1998, a sessions court convicted and sentenced the accused man, along with his parents and brother, for the woman’s suicide. This decision was primarily based on the fact that the woman had taken her own life a few months after the couple began living together. The accused promptly challenged this verdict, and, in 2000, an appellate court partially allowed their appeals. The accused man, however, sought further justice by appealing to the Kerala High Court.
Kerala High Court’s Verdict
On October 12, 2023, the Kerala High Court allowed the plea and overturned the previous findings of guilt. It emphasized that the couple was not legally married and had been living together based on a “marriage agreement” that held no legal weight. Consequently, the sessions court’s original findings were deemed incorrect, as the accused and the deceased woman were not legally wed.
Live-in Relationship: Not Husband and Wife
The court categorically stated, “they have to be treated as persons in a live-in relationship, and they were not husband and wife, in order to attract an offense punishable under Section 498A of IPC.” This declaration reinforces the importance of a legal marriage for the applicability of Section 498A.
Abetment of Suicide Charges Dismissed
Furthermore, the High Court dismissed the charges against the accused related to the abetment of suicide. This decision stemmed from the fact that the woman, in her dying declaration, did not level any allegations against the man or his family. This element of the case played a crucial role in the court’s final judgment.
Implications and the Future of Live-in Relationships
The Kerala High Court’s ruling has brought into focus the legal recognition and rights of individuals in live-in relationships. It reinforces the requirement of a legally recognized marriage for the application of Section 498A of the IPC, which deals with cruelty against married women. This decision marks a significant step in defining the legal boundaries and implications of live-in relationships in India and may have far-reaching consequences for future cases and legal precedents. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the court’s verdict will undoubtedly spark discussions and debates on the rights and protections afforded to those in live-in relationships in the country.
-by Kashvi Gala