Offence of cruelty to wife under Section 498A IPC not applicable to live-in relationships: Kerala High Court

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The Kerala High Court recently observed that Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which punishes cruelty to a married woman, cannot be invoked by women in a live-in relationship [Narayanan & Ors. v State of Kerala].

Justice Sophy Thomas observed that for a woman to seek shelter under Section 498A, she must be married (to the man who is accused of cruelty or to the man whose family members have been accused of the cruelty).

“When there is some form of marriage either religious or customary which has the colour of a legal marriage, then also, the woman can seek protection under Section 498A of IPC though later, for some reason … that marriage is found to be invalid in the eye of law. But, when there was no solemnisation of marriage at all, and only live in relationship on the basis of a marriage agreement, then the woman cannot seek shelter under Section 498A of IPC, saying that they were holding out to the society as man and wife by their long cohabitation,” the judge explained.

The Court made the observation while setting aside the conviction and sentence imposed on a man and his brother under Sections 498A and 306 (abetment of suicide) of the IPC for the death of a woman in 1997.

The deceased woman is said to have died by setting herself on fire, allegedly due to the cruelty and harassment she faced after she eloped with the accused man.

The man and his family (mother, father, and brother) were initially convicted and sentenced by a sessions court after the woman committed suicide, just a few months after they started living together.

This 1998 verdict was challenged and in 2000, an appellate court partly allowed the appeals filed by the man and his family. However, the accused filed another plea before the High Court so that they could be honorably acquitted in the case.

On October 12, the High Court allowed their revision plea and overturned the trial court’s findings of guilt.

Pertinently, the High Court observed that no marriage was solemnised between the couple and that they were actually living together based on a “marriage agreement” that did not have any legal sanctity.

Therefore, the High Court said that the sessions court’s finding that the man and his family were guilty under Section 498A of IPC was wrong since the couple was not married.

“In the case on hand, since the marriage between the 1st revision petitioner and deceased was not solemnized, and they started living together on the basis of a marriage agreement, which has no legal sanctity in the eye of the law, they have to be treated as persons in live-in-relation, and they were not husband and wife, in order to attract an offence punishable under Section 498A of IPC,” said the High Court.

The conviction of the accused for suicide abetment was also set aside after the Court found that the woman had not made any allegation against her partner or his brother (revision petitioners) in her dying declaration.

Therefore, the High Court acquitted both the accused persons of this charge as well. Meanwhile, the man’s parents had passed away while the case was pending. Therefore, the Court said that the charges against the parents stood abated.

The revision petitioners were represented by advocate KP Balagopal. The State government was represented by Public Prosecutor Nima Jacob.

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