Gift deed by an old illiterate woman: SC approves not legalistic but holistic approach by lower courts to determine validity of deed. HC’s verdict set aside

Supreme Court: In an issue relating to the alleged gift deed by an old illiterate woman, the bench of MR Shah and Sanjiv Khanna*, JJ has held that when a person obtains any benefit from another, the court would call upon the person who wishes to maintain the right to gift to discharge the burden of proving that he exerted no influence for the purpose of obtaining the document. While the corollary to this principle finds recognition under sub-section (3) to Section 16 of the Contract Act, 1872 which relates to pardanashin ladies, the courts can apply it to old, illiterate, ailing or infirm persons who may be unable to comprehend the nature of document or contents thereof.

Factual Background

The dispute relates to land owned by Hardei, who died issueless in 1991. Gian Chand is the son of Hardei’s brother, whereas Keshav is her sister’s son. Gian Chand and Dhanbir, contended that late Hardei had gifted the land to them during her lifetime vide gift deed dated 23rd December 1985.

Keshav, on the other hand, claimed that he was a tenant in occupancy of the land for over 15 years, a fact admitted by Hardei before the revenue authorities. Keshav had therefore acquired rights over the land. Hardei, during her lifetime, had denied execution of the gift deed and opposed the request of mutation of the land in favour of Gian Chand and Dhanbir, which request for mutation was rejected in 1989.

Both the Trial Court and the first appellate court decided in favour of Keshav to hold that the execution of the gift deed by Hardei in favour of the plaintiffs was a delusion, bease on the following facts:

Hardei was an old illiterate lady who used to live in a village with her sister’s son Keshav. The gift deed statedly executed on 23rd December 1985 and registered on 1st January 1986, was not produced for mutation till 1989, where also, Hardei had opposed the mutation and denied execution of gift deed in favour of the plaintiffs. She had stated before the revenue authority that Keshav was in possession of the land in dispute for about the last 15 years. Further, there was ample evidence to show that Keshav was looking after Hardei and taking care of her needs. Therefore, there was no reason for Hardei to execute a gift deed favouring the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs were never in possession of the suit land even for the period after execution of gift deed in 1986, and till the institution of the suit in 1991. The revenue entries for the said period did not support the plaintiffs.

The Himachal Pradesh High Court, however, reversed the concurrent findings on the ground that the trial court and the first appellate court had misread and misinterpreted the documentary and oral evidence.

Analysis

The Court noticed that the concurrent findings of the lower courts delve into the context and factual aspects surrounding the primary evidence viz., gift deed, to conclude that the plaintiffs case lacks base for a bona fide claim for decree of declaration. Appreciation of evidence is an exercise based on facts and circumstances where the preponderance of probability can take varying form and configurations. What facts and circumstances have to be established to prove the execution of a document depends on the pleas put forward. Ordinarily, no one is expected to sign or execute a document without knowing its contents, but if it is pleaded that the party executing the document did not know the contents thereof then it may, in certain circumstances, be necessary for the party seeking to prove the document to place material before the court to satisfy it that the party who executed the document had the knowledge of its contents.

When a person obtains any benefit from another, the court would call upon the person who wishes to maintain the right to gift to discharge the burden of proving that he exerted no influence for the purpose of obtaining the document. Corollary to this principle finds recognition in sub-section (3) to Section 16 of the Contract Act, 1872 which relates to pardanashin ladies. The courts can apply this principle to old, illiterate, ailing or infirm persons who may be unable to comprehend the nature of document or contents thereof.

Equally, one who bargains in the matter of advantage with a person who places confidence in him is bound to show that a proper and reasonable use has been made of that confidence. The burden of establishing perfect fairness, adequacy and equity is cast upon the person in whom the confidence has been reposed. Therefore, in cases of fiduciary relationships when validity of the transaction is in question it is relevant to see whether the person conferring the benefit on the other had competent and independent advice.

The question whether a person was in a position to dominate the will of the other and procure a certain deed by undue influence is a question of fact, and a finding thereon is a finding of fact, and if arrived at fairly in accordance with the procedure prescribed, it is not liable to be reopened in second appeal.

Ruling on facts

Considering that the very origin of the gift deed was disputed by the executant during her lifetime, the lower courts were right in weighing the evidence of the gift deed on the touchstone of its validity first, rather than its form and content.

The fact in issue in the present case is the voluntariness and animus necessary for the execution of a valid gift deed, which is to be examined on the basis of evidence led by the parties who could depose for the truth of this fact in issue. Decision and determination of the fact in issue is by examination of the oral evidence of those persons who can vouchsafe for the truth of the facts in issue.

The impugned judgment in the second appeal by the High Court, unfortunately, chose to ignore and not deal with the fact in issue in the background of the case, but was completely influenced by the evidence led to support execution and registration of the document, and not whether execution was voluntary and in exercise of unfettered will to effect gratuitous transfer of land in favour of the plaintiffs.

Concurrent findings of facts arrived at in the present case were based upon a holistic examination of the entire evidence relating to execution and validity of the gift deed. The lower courts did not adopt a legalistic approach but took into account not one but several factual facets to accept the version given by Keshav that the gift deed was not a valid document.

“These concurrent findings are not perverse but rather good findings based upon cogent and relevant material and evidence on record. These findings of the facts can be interfered in the second appeal only if they are perverse or some gross illegalities have been committed in arriving at such findings. To reverse the findings is not only to assess errors but also deal with the reasons given by the court below and record findings and grounds for upsetting the conclusion.”

The Court hence held that the views and findings recorded by the lower courts are well reasoned and have taken into account several factors that repel and contradict the claim of a valid execution of the gift deed by Hardei favouring the plaintiffs. Hence, the impugned judgment of the High Court was set aside.

[Keshav v. Gian Chand, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 81, decided on 24.01.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Sanjiv Khanna

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