Author: Asmita Ayilavarapu.
AIR 2010 SC 2685.
NAMES OF THE PARTIES
Appellants: Bharatha Matha and Another.
Respondents: R. Vijaya Renganathan and Others.
Justice Dr. B. S. Chauhan;
Justice Swatanter Kumar.
Live in relationships as an emerging concept is largely an untapped area with a lot of loopholes. Further, the status of a child born out of wedlock is termed as ‘illegitimate’ and is met with backlash from society at large. This case deals with whether a child born in a live-in relationship can claim a share in ancestral property as well as the status of the relationship between two people co-habiting for a few years.
The case Bharatha Matha v. Vijaya Renganathan is an important case in the aspects of live-in relationships and the status of inheritance by children born out of unconventional relationships. The Supreme Court in this case has dealt with the validity of marriage between Smt. Rengammal (Defandant1) and Algarsami Reddiar and also the legal nuances of the supposed live-in relationship between Smt. Rengammal and late Muthu Reddiar (brother of Algarsami Reddiar).
Further, it sheds light on the legitimacy of children born out of such a situation and overall discusses the rights in ancestral properties of such children.
The brief facts of the case are given here below:
- Peria Mariammal filed a suit against the respondents claiming the share of her brother Muthu Reddiar on the ground that he died unmarried and without having made a will.
- Respondent 1, Vijaya Renganathan purchased the suit property and got impleaded in the appeal as a party. He then filed the second appeal alone as the first appeal was dismissed by the appellate court’s judgement.
- The appellants have submitted that Defendant 1 Smt. Rengammal was the legally wedded wife of Algarsami and he was still alive. Therefore the presumption of a live-in relationship between Late Muthu Reddiar and her could not be made.
- The defendants have submitted that the fact of marriage and living together as spouses of Smt. Rengammal and Algarsami Reddiar could not be proved by the plaintiffs and because of the live-in relationship, a presumption of marriage could be made according to the Hindu Marriage Act 1955. And on the basis of the Act, the two children of Smt. Rengammal and Late Muthu Reddiar were liable to claim their part in the property.
- The court held that as the respondents at no stage have stated that the land is self-acquired property of Muthu Reddiar. Therefore, the question of inheritance of coparcenary property by the children born out of wedlock could not arise. In view of this, the appeal succeeded and was allowed.
- Whether there exists a legal presumption of lawful wedlock based on the admission of long cohabitation of Rengammal and Muthu Reddiar?
- Whether the children of Rengammal and Muthu Reddiar should be eligible to claim the family inheritance?
The court stated that set the second contention regarding the existence of marriage between the defendant and Algarsami is liable to be set aside on the grounds that the High Court did not take into consideration the plaintiff’s witness while presuming the existence of the marriage and that the findings thus become perverse. Nevertheless, the court stated Section 5(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act which gives certain conditions for a Hindu marriage; it provides that marriage may be solemnized if neither of them has a spouse alive at the time of marriage and any marriage in contravention to this would be void. In S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal & Anr.,1 it was held that live-in-relationships are only permissible in unmarried major persons of heterogenous sex.
The court further discussed on the legitimacy of the child born outside of wedlock in live-in relationships or void and voidable marriages under Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act. The court cited the case Smt. P.E.K. Kalliani Amma & Ors. v. K. Devi & Ors.,2 in which it was held that in view of Section 16, illegitimate children for all practical purposes should be treated as legitimate, including succession of the properties of their parents but further elaborates that the children cannot lay claim to the properties of any other relation based on this rule.
In view of the cases and sections cited, the court held that a child born from a void or voidable marriage according to the Act is not entitled to claim inheritance in ancestral coparcenary property but can only claim a share in self-acquired properties of the parents. Further, as the respondents had at no stage pleaded that the land was self-acquired property of Muthu Reddiar and he died intestate without partitioning his joint family properties, it becomes clear that the children had no claim in the coparcenary property. The bench in the case was a division bench consisting of two Judges and thus there is a clear ratio in favour of the judgement.
In this judgment the court has tried to look at the case with a fresher perspective and contradicted points of the lower courts who established the existence of marriage between defendant 1 and Muthu Reddiar without taking a look at the plaintiff’s witness.
The court has cited Section 5(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act which lays down conditions for a Hindu marriage. It clearly states that marriage may be solemnized between two Hindus if neither of them has a spouse living at the time of marriage. And since Smt. Rengammal’s legally wedded husband was alive at the time of filing of the suit, a marriage could not be legally solemnized between her and Muthu Reddiar at any point of their live-in relationship as the Section 11 of the Act provides that such a marriage which is in contravention of the Section 5(1) of the Act is considered to be void. Further, the court has cited Section 16 of the Act and Smt. P.E.K. Kalliani Amma & Ors. v. K. Devi & Ors.,3 and stated that the child born out of a void marriage is to be treated as legitimate but can only claim a share in the properties acquired by the parents and not ancestral property. Since the respondents have not pleaded the suit land to be self-acquired property of Muthu Reddiar, the court held that the inheritance of the coparcenary property by their children could not arise. The court has stated the laws and case law to arrive at such a conclusion and therefore the judgment is clear in its decision.
The court should have further investigated the proof of non-access and the irregular marriage behaviour between Smt. Rengammal and Algarsami as according to Section 112 of the Evidence Act proper evidence of non-access and not living as husband and wife could deny the presumption of marriage between them hence solemnizing the status of relationship between Smt. Rengammal and Muthu Reddiar as married due to their long cohabitation in a live-in relationship. This would’ve further made the two children they shared rightful heirs to the property without much question upon their legitimacy.
The court has discussed in detail on the status of legitimacy of the children born out of the live-in relationship under Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act which is a progressive step towards the social security of children by bringing in reforms for them upon the question of their legitimacy. Children are often ostracized when they are illegitimate and born out of wedlock which is no fault of their own. But society has always held a notion of evil around illegitimate children and this law has ensured the status of legitimacy of a child.
Although the court dealt with this matter in a delicate way and cited several case laws to reach the decision, it can be questioned as to why the biological off-spring of Muthu Reddiar could not claim a share in the family inheritance. Muthu Reddiar has a clear share in the family’s ancestral property and it is only fair that his own children can claim the share regardless of their legitimacy.
This judgement became an important judgement by laying down that children born out of void or voidable marriages can claim inheritance only in self acquired properties of their parents and not in the Hindu ancestral joint family property. This judgement took care to not ostracize or dehumanize children and emphasized on their status of legitimacy even after being born out of complex or unconventional relationships. The case gives a broader interpretation of the law so that no child is ‘bastardized’ as they have committed no fault of their own for such treatment.
This judgment also discussed upon the legality of live-in relationships under the Hindu Marriage Act. While the Hindu Marriage Act and other laws of India do provide for a live-in relationship, there is a need for a separate mechanism with more detailed laws as the society becomes more progressive and accepting of unconventional ways of living. There still is a lot of criticism for this type of cohabitation because of the culture and mindset but with time many people do prefer it, therefore a definite set of laws similar to Hindu Marriage Act for live-in relationships can go a long way which will give a clear set criteria for live-in relationships and include a larger scope of relationship dynamics as well additional protection of rights to women and children including rights to alimony, custody of the child, rights against abuse. Giving live-in relationships more importance in the legal world can help in reducing the stigma attached to it and encourage people to actively seek legal remedies while facing problems in live-in relationships.
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