irretrievable breakdown of marriage

Supreme Court: While considering the question of “Should the irretrievable breakdown of marriage necessarily result in the dissolution of marriage in exercise of powers under Article 142 of the Constitution of India, when such is not a ground for divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act 1955?”, the Division Bench of Aniruddha Bose and Bela M. Trivedi*, JJ. refused to grant divorce due to irretrievable breakdown of marriage to do complete justice to the aged couple.

Factual Matrix

The husband aged about 82 years was a qualified doctor, a Commissioned Air Force Officer who retired on 30-04-1990 as Wing Commander. The wife aged about 82 years was also a retired teacher, having worked in a Central School. The husband filed divorce proceedings before the District Court on 12-03-1996 on the grounds of cruelty and desertion under Section 13(1)(ia) and 13(1)(ib) of Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (‘HMA’), which was allowed leading to dissolution of marriage. The same was challenged by the wife before the Single Bench which in turn reversed the District Court’s decision and the said reversal was confirmed by the Division Bench of Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The parties got married on 10-03-1963 as per the Sikh rites, the marriage was consummated, and the couple had three children. According to the husband, the relations between the couple were normal until January 1984, when he got posted at Madras and his wife refused to join him and initially preferred to stay with her in-laws (husband’s parents) and thereafter with her son. The dispute could not be resolved despite sincere efforts, while led the husband to file divorce proceedings. Cruelty was alleged against wife for not joining him in Madras, not taking care of him while he had a heart problem, subsequently making complaints to the Air Force Authorities to malign his image. The ground of desertion was supported by the contentions that the parties were living separately since the filing of divorce, and the marriage had been irretrievably broken down

Court’s Consideration

The Court noted that both the parties were in the late evening of their lives and had expected them to sit together to explore the possibility of an amicable settlement but ended up hearing the matter. The Court acknowledged ‘cruelty’ and ‘desertion’ to be legitimate grounds of divorce under Section 13(1) of HMA.

Analysis for Desertion and Cruelty as a ground for divorce

The Court cited relevant portion of Naveen Kohli v. Neelu Kohli, (2006) 4 SCC 558 to depict the crux that “the interpretation of the word “cruelty” is that it has to be construed and interpreted considering the type of life the parties are accustomed to; or their economic and social conditions and their culture and human values to which they attach importance.”

With reference to Bipinchandra Jaisinghbai Shah v. Prabhavati, 1956 SCC OnLine SC 15 and Lachman Utamchand Kirpalani v. Meena, 1963 SCC OnLine SC 32, the Court traced out what constituted desertion.

The Court pointed out that the High Court’s Single Judge Bench held that the husband failed to prove the grounds of cruelty and desertion as under Section 13(1) of HMA and reversed the decree of divorce passed by the District Court, which was also confirmed by the Division Bench. The Court concurred with the views taken by the High Court Benches.

Consideration of Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage

Highlighting the submission made on behalf of the husband that the marriage had irretrievably broken down, the Court noted the years of separation and failure of all efforts to bring them together and commented that “Under the circumstances one may presume that the marriage is emotionally dead and beyond salvation and that there is an irretrievable break down of marriage between the parties.”

The matter led the Court to consider the question of “Should the irretrievable breakdown of marriage necessarily result into a decree of divorce to be granted under Article 142 of the Constitution of India?”. In other words, is it mandatory for the Court to grant divorce while exercising power under Article 142 of Constitution, if facts reflect irretrievable breakdown of marriage?

The Court cited 5-Judge Bench decision in Shilpa Sailesh v. Varun Sreenivasan, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 544 regarding irretrievable breakdown of marriage and passing of decree of divorce under Article 142 of the Constitution. The Court reiterated that “this Court can depart from the procedure as well as the substantive laws and exercise its discretion under Article 142 for dissolving the marriage between the parties by balancing out the equities between the conflicting claims of the parties.” The Court was cautious while stating that such discretion under Article 142 while granting divorce due to irretrievable breakdown of marriage should be exercised with great care and caution, and that such exercise should be aimed at ‘complete justice’ while one of the spouses opposed the dissolution of marriage.

The Court opined against being oblivious to the important role played by the institution of marriage in society. It further added that “Despite the increasing trend of filing the Divorce proceedings in the courts of law, the institution of marriage is still considered to be a pious, spiritual, and invaluable emotional life-net between the husband and the wife in the Indian society. It is governed not only by the letters of law but by the social norms as well. So many other relationships stem from and thrive on the matrimonial relationships in society. Therefore, it would not be desirable to accept the formula of “irretrievable break down of marriage” as a straight-jacket formula for the grant of relief of divorce under Article 142 of the Constitution of India.”

Coming back to the instant case, the Court stated that the wife throughout her life maintained the sacred relationship since 1963 and took care of her children despite the husband exhibiting total hostility towards them. It further added that the wife was still ready and willing to take care of her husband and did not wish to leave him alone at this stage of life, and also did not want to die with the stigma of being a ‘divorcee’ woman. The Court clarified that “In contemporary society, it may not constitute to be stigma, but here we are concerned with the respondent’s own sentiment.” Respecting such sentiments and circumstances, the Court opined that grant of divorce under Article 142 of Constitution would not do complete justice to the parties but bring injustice to the wife. Therefore, the Court refused to accept the husband’s appeal and accordingly dismissed the same.

[Nirmal Singh Panesar v. Paramjit Kaur Panesar, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1297, decided on 10-10-2023]

Judgment authored by: Justice Bela M. Trivedi

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For Appellants: Advocate Vipin Gogia, Advocate on Record Jaspreet Gogia, Advocate Karanvir Gogia, Advocate Varnika Gupta

For Respondent: Advocate on Record Madhurima Tatia

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