A woman can now seek legal action against her daughter-in-law and even her minor grandchildren for domestic violence after the Supreme Court widened the scope of a law that was seen as biased in favour of the son’s wife.
The court’s decision to strike down the expression “adult male” from a provision that identifies those who can be acted against under the domestic violence act puts a daughter-in-law and other female relatives at equal footing, expanding the list to women as well as underage family members.
“The microscopic difference between male and female, adult and non-adult… is neither real or substantial, nor does it have any rational relation…,” the court said.
Earlier, the daughter-in-law was the only woman who could sue her husband and all his women relatives, including his mother, sisters and even nieces. But a domestic violence complaint couldn’t be filed against the daughter-in-law as the accused under the law could only be adult males.
“It is not difficult to conceive of a non-adult 16 or 17-year-old member of a household who can aid or abet the commission of acts of domestic violence,” a bench of justice Kurien Joseph and justice Rohinton Nariman said in the order passed on October 6.
There have been growing complaints about the abuse of the law at the hands of daughters-in-law to put pressure on husbands, especially in seeking a hefty divorce settlement.
The domestic violence act came into force in 2005 to protect women from physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic abuse at home.
Under the act, an offender can be prevented from selling his house or businesses or both to ensure the victim is not left to fend for herself.
The benefit, however, was not available to a woman if her daughter-in-law harassed her. The court’s decision fixes the anomaly.
The court said “adult male” was not only an offending expression but also rejected the popular belief that juveniles couldn’t harass the elders, rejecting a woman’s challenge to a Bombay high court order that said daughter-in-laws, too, could be tried for domestic violence.
Senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, who argued for the mother-in-law in the apex court, said the order had wider ramifications. “Technically, now even a daughter can take her mother to court,” she said.
In the case of a wife complaining of domestic violence, the husband’s relatives, including his mother and sisters, could be “arrayed as respondents (accused) and effective orders passed against them but in the case of a mother-in-law or sister-in-law who is an aggrieved person, the respondent can only be an ‘adult male person’ ”, the bench said.
The court gave multiple examples and said the words “adult male person” restricted the law, which was not providing equal protection to the other women of a household.