New Supreme Court guidelines must settle maintenance issue once for all

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Supreme Court’s recent order to form guidelines for providing maintenance to women in case of matrimonial disputes between husbands and wives can solve the issue once for all and end all the confusion between various high courts.

However, common guidelines for maintenance allowance may not necessarily give justice to every distressed woman due to their varying socio-economic conditions.

The maintenance to distressed women has always been handed down by the courts by a ‘hit and trial’ method. An order which is not appealed is a hit order.

Many courts in the past have tried to come up with standard formulae to grant maintenance to women. But can one formula apply to all women the same way? The trauma faced by every woman cannot be the same. The circumstances of every couple in terms of finances, housing, and employment cannot be the same.

That’s why the standard disclaimer in every judgment reads: “look into the facts and circumstances of each case”. This is often used as a blanket statement to justify the same hit and trial method.

Delhi High Court had come with a list of 11 pointers ‘factors’ to be considered while granting the maintenance in the matter of Sh. Bharat Hedge v. Smt. Saroj Hegde, which was again repeated in Sujit Kumar v. Vandana case.

Those factors included the status of the parties, reasonable wants of the claimant, the independent income and property of the claimant, the number of dependent members of the family so that the spouse is able to live a similar lifestyle as before.

Same Delhi High Court in the matter of Babita Bisht v. Dharmender Singh Bisht stated that 30 per cent of the gross income of husband after the minimum statutory deductions when there are no dependent members, would be an apt amount for the maintenance.  Bombay High Court, on the other hand, had set the amount to be at one-fifth of the husband’s salary/income. In the matter of Dr Kulbhushan v. Raj Kumari & Ors. the ‘appropriate’ maintenance was said to be 25 per cent of the husband’s net salary. The Supreme Court in Kalyan Dey Chowdhary v. Rita Dey Chowdhary Nee Nandydecided that 25 per cent of the net salary of the husband is appropriate maintenance.

It is important to understand that in a country like ours, marriages, irrespective of any caste, creed and religion are mostly referred to as the union of two families.

Often a woman is not just married to the man based purely on his credentials, income and property. While marrying, factors like riches of the parents, the social standing of the family, the reputation of the family, property(s) of the family, number of brothers and sisters of the man (as the property gets divided at some stage), business turnover and annual income are looked into. Hence the woman is married into a family and not just to a man. The patriarchal setup dictates that a woman should go to the man’s house and be a part of his family. She is not kept isolated from his husband’s family. She is to take on responsibility, not just of the man but his entire family.

When it comes to giving maintenance, the only thing considered by the courts is the salary or income of the man she is married to. In cases where the family she is married in has a business in the name of someone other than the husband, it becomes absolutely impossible for the woman to show what her husband earns. Similarly,  in the families who are landlords, often the lands are in the name of the father who can conveniently ‘deny’ the son his share based on some excuse or the other, and thus the woman married to him have no way of showing the ‘income’ of the husband. Even in cases where the husband is a salaried employee but has been living in a house and enjoying the lifestyle which he cannot otherwise afford if not for his family income of father’s business or the revenue generated from landholdings of the family, the woman is granted maintenance based on just his income. In many cases, where a newly wedded couple lives with the family of the husband, the monthly expenditure of the household is more than the income of the husband. Then what does one refer to, the lifestyle she is accustomed to or the income of the husband?

After the much-criticized judgment of S.R. Batra, it was seen that families publically disowned their sons only to deprive their wives any right in the shared property.

In such a society, the possibility of the matrimonial family handing over the documents of their income tax returns to the new “outsider” who has just come into their house can be ruled out.

Thus instead of asking the woman to produce the proof of the income of her husband or joint businesses, the court should put the burden of proof on the husband to disprove the claim of the woman.

The courts should look into everything, starting from the lifestyle of the man and his family to what is the monthly expenditure of the house they resided as husband and wife including bills of electricity, water, groceries etc.

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