Important Ruling on India's Notorious Section 498A Law

Important Indian Ruling on India's Notorious Section 498A Law

Jeremy D. Morley

In an important ruling on India's notorious "Section 498A law" (see, the Bombay High Court has ruled that a wife who made unsubstantiated allegations in a criminal case that she initiated against her husband and family under Section 498A of India's Penal Law has thereby committed acts of cruelty sufficient to provide a ground for the husband to divorce her [Mr. M v. Mrs. M, Family Court Appeal No. 71 of 2006, decided on 7th February, 2014].

Section 498A makes it criminal for a husband and his relatives to subject a married woman to cruelty is which is likely to drive a woman to commit suicide or cause grave physical or mental injury to her, and harassment with a view to coercing her or any of her relatives to meet any unlawful demands of property.

The problems with the law were the result of a "perfect storm" that was entirely unanticipated when the law was introduced to protect woman in 1983. The elements of the storm included: 

     - Extremely vague statutory language. 

     - A separate law that prohibited the provision or acceptance of a dowry. 

     - A custom that has been difficult to eradicate of a bride giving a dowry upon marriage. 

     - A law that may only used by women against men. 

     - A provision that extends criminality to any of the husband's allegedly-participating relatives. 

     - A police force that is notoriously corrupt. 

     - A law that in the past allowed for the immediate arrest of the husband and members of his family by the police on the basis of a woman's complaint. 

     - A provision that the offense was non-bailable. 

     - A domestic relations procedure that is extremely cumbersome and in many ways unworkable.

The result has been that when a marriage breaks up the woman is often able to get her husband and many of his family members arrested by simply filing a claim of cruelty and persuading the local police to arrest the so-called wrongdoers. This is much more effective than initiating an ordinary case for divorce. In one famous case, the Supreme Court of India described such conduct as "legal terrorism."

The wife had made two serious allegations against the husband and members of his family, which the alleged ill-treatment had resulted in her arthritis and had led to her father's death from shock.

In the new case, the Court ruled that the husband had established that the respondent could not substantiate the allegations of cruelty in the criminal trial and that, between 2001 and 2004, he and his family members were required to attend 56 court hearings before they were ultimately acquitted.

The Court stated that, considering the manner in which the criminal case proceeded, the respondent and his family members were subjected to humiliation, trauma and agony.

For this reason, the Court held that the conduct amounted to mental cruelty to the husband and therefore set aside a Family Court order that had denied a divorce to the husband from his wife.

However, while the ruling is sensible, it must be pointed out that it occurred in 2014 - 14 years after the wife's misconduct was initiated. The wheels of justice turn slowly in India.

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