“Family” includes domestic, unmarried/queer relationships; Child care/maternity leave benefits cannot be denied if women do not fit into “popular imagination” of a family: SC 

Supreme Court: In a case relating to maternity leave benefit to a woman not fitting in the popular imagination of a family, the bench of Dr DY Chandrachud* and AS Bopanna, JJ has observed that “familial relationships may take the form of domestic, unmarried partnerships or queer relationships.”

The Court was of the opinion that the predominant understanding of the concept of a “family” both in the law and in society is that it consists of a single, unchanging unit with a mother and a father (who remain constant over time) and their children, ignores the fact that many circumstances lead to a change in one’s familial structure, and that many families do not conform to this expectation to begin with.

“A household may be a single parent household for any number of reasons, including the death of a spouse, separation, or divorce. Similarly, the guardians and caretakers (who traditionally occupy the roles of the “mother” and the “father”) of children may change with remarriage, adoption, or fostering. These manifestations of love and of families may not be typical but they are as real as their traditional counterparts. Such atypical manifestations of the family unit are equally deserving not only of protection under law but also of the benefits available under social welfare legislation. The black letter of the law must not be relied upon to disadvantage families which are different from traditional ones. The same undoubtedly holds true for women who take on the role of motherhood in ways that may not find a place in the popular imagination.”

Background

The Court was hearing the case where the maternity leave request of a woman, working as Nursing Officer in the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research Chandigarh, was rejected on the ground that she had two surviving children born from the first marriage of her spouse and had availed of child care leave earlier for one of them, and hence, her first biological child was her third child. The first wife of the appellant’s husband had died, with whom he had two children.

The maternity leave for the child borne by her, considered as her third child, was found to be inadmissible in terms in terms of Rule 43 of the Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules 1972. Hence, her leave was cumulatively treated as earned leave, medical leave, half pay leave, and extraordinary leave. This decision was upheld by the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Analysis

The Supreme Court, however, noticed that, in the case at hand, the structure of the appellant’s family changed when she took on a parental role with respect to her spouse’s biological children from his previous marriage. When the appellant applied to PGIMER for maternity leave, PGIMER was faced with facts that the law may not have envisaged or adequately accounted for. When courts are confronted with such situations, they would do well to attempt to give effect to the purpose of the law in question rather than to prevent its application.

It was, hence, observed that unless a purposive interpretation were to be adopted in the present case, the object and intent of the grant of maternity leave would simply be defeated. It was explained that the grant of maternity leave under Rules of 1972 is intended to facilitate the continuance of women in the workplace. It is a harsh reality that but for such provisions, many women would be compelled by social circumstances to give up work on the birth of a child, if they are not granted leave and other facilitative measures.

“No employer can perceive child birth as detracting from the purpose of employment. Child birth has to be construed in the context of employment as a natural incident of life and hence, the provisions for maternity leave must be construed in that perspective.”

On the issue of grant of leave for child care, the Court held that Rule 43(1) of the Rules of 1972 contemplates the grant of maternity leave for a period of 180 days. Independent of the grant of maternity leave, a woman is also entitled to the grant of child care leave for taking care of her two eldest surviving children whether for rearing or for looking after any of their needs, such as education, sickness and the like. Child care leave under Rule 43-C can be availed of not only at the point when the child is born but at any subsequent period as is evident from the illustrative causes which are adverted to in the provisions. Both constitute distinct entitlements.

The Court made amply clear that the fact that the appellant’s spouse had two biological children from his first marriage would not impinge upon the entitlement of the appellant to avail maternity leave for her sole biological child. The fact that she was granted child care leave in respect of the two biological children born to her spouse from an earlier marriage may be a matter on which a compassionate view was taken by the authorities at the relevant time.

The Court went on to show concern over the fact that gendered roles assigned to women and societal expectations mean that women are always pressed upon to take a disproportionate burden of childcare work. According to a ‘time-use’ survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women in India currently spend upto 352 minutes per day on unpaid work, 577% more than the time spent by men. Time spent in unpaid work includes childcare. In this context, the support of care work through benefits such as maternity leave, paternity leave, or child care leave (availed by both parents) by the state and other employers is essential. Although certain provisions of the Rules of 1972 have enabled women to enter the paid workforce, women continue to bear the primary responsibility for childcare. Hence, the grant of child care leave to the appellant cannot be used to disentitle her to maternity leave under Rule 43 of the Rules of 1972.

The Court, hence, held that the appellant was entitled to the grant of maternity leave and directed that the benefits to her shall be released to her within a period of two months from the date of the order.

[Deepika Singh v. Central Administrative Services, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1088, decided on 16.08.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice DR DY Chandrachud


For appellant: Advocate Akshay Verma

For Respondents: Advocate Sudarshan Rajan

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