Differing approaches to statutory interpretation: Was there a better way to set right the error of Batra v Batra?

An analysis of the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India by which the term "shared household" under the Domestic Violence Act was given a broader interpretation.
Differing approaches to statutory interpretation: Was there a better way to set right the error of Batra v Batra?

The primary function of the judiciary is to interpret and declare the law. Litigants are entitled to expect that such interpretation is done with certainty and finality, so that they may organize their affairs and exercise their rights in consonance with the law.

In this article, we have analysed the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India in Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja dated October 15 this year.

In this judgment, the Supreme Court overruled its earlier judgment in SR Batra v. Taruna Batra, pertaining to the right of residence available to a woman seeking protection from domestic violence.

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Ahuja overruled Batra and held that the words “shared household” found in Section 2(s) of the Domestic Violence Act were required to be interpreted in accordance with the plain meaning of the statute. Further, being so construed, it would include any household in which the victim was residing at the relevant time, irrespective of the person in whom title vested.

While the authors agree entirely with the conclusion reached by the Supreme Court in Ahuja, we argue that the Court should have adopted a different approach to arrive at the same conclusion. Rather than a literal interpretation (as has been adopted in Ahuja), an interpretation with underpinnings in the underlying morality of the Domestic Violence Act should have been adopted.

As Justice Blackmun of the US Supreme Court said, "Today, the Court purports to be the dispassionate oracle of the law, unmoved by 'natural sympathy'... But, in this pretence, the Court itself retreats into a sterile formalism which prevents it from recognizing either the facts of the case before it or the legal norms that should apply to those facts".

The Domestic Violence Act was promulgated in 2005 and was a welcome piece of legislation, intended to bring about a social change and uproot the deep rooted patriarchy in the Indian Society by providing tangible legal recourse to women who are victims of domestic violence.

Unfortunately, soon after the promulgation of the Act, came the decision in Batra, which adopted an interpretation which was clearly not in consonance with the principles underlying the Act.

In Batra the issue was whether the property in the name of the mother-in-law would constitute ‘shared household’ within the meaning of Sec. 2(s) of the Act.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, accepting the submission that property held in the name of the mother-in-law will not constitute a ‘shared household’, took a view in Paragraph 26 (which was the heart of Batra) held that any other interpretation of the provision ‘would lead to chaos and would be absurd’.

The problems with Batra and the decision in Ahuja

It is a fundamental logical fallacy to arrive at a premise on the basis of a reductio ad absurdum argument. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did exactly that in Batra.

The Domestic Violence Act was intended to bring an end to a poisonous culture of tolerating and hushing up domestic violence. It was intended to create a safe space, as we have noted, for the woman.

All of these were missed in Batra. It took another thirteen years for Batra to be overruled in Ahuja.

The Supreme Court in Ahuja, after considering various judgements, held that Sec. 2 (s) is an exhaustive definition, and when read with Sec. 17 and 19 of the Act, grants an entitlement in favour of the woman of the right of residence under the shared household irrespective of her having any legal interest in the same.

The Supreme Court went on to overrule Batra and debunked the reductio ad absurdum argument in Batra and delinked the right of residence of a woman from the legalistic issue of title.

Does Ahuja embody the correct approach ?

As we have said above, Ahuja was undoubtedly the right conclusion. Was this reached by the right approach ?

There were two decisions of the High Courts which decided the exact same question but with a far more holistic approach. Unfortunately, neither of these two decisions was placed before the Supreme Court for its consideration in Ahuja.

In 2007, the Madras High Court, having occasion to interpret Sec. 2 (s) of the Act in Vandana v. T Srikanth, and being fully cognizant of the burden of binding judgement in SR Batra’s case, went behind the bare provisions to understand the intention and the purpose for which the Act was enacted. After considering the Women’s Charter of Statutes of the Republic of Singapore and also the recommendations of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Court held that Sec. 2 (s) of the Act is of a wide purport and the usage of the words ‘living’ certainly brings into its fold the ‘right to live’.

The Court also expressly ensured that the provisions are interpreted so that they are in conformity with the International Conventions, and concluded that the question of title was not strictly relevant to an interpretation of Sec. 2(s).

The following passage is indicative of the approach of the Madras High Court:

"20. In a society like ours, there are very many situations, in which a woman may not enter into her matrimonial home immediately after marriage...It is not uncommon in our society, for a woman in marriage to be sent to her parental home even before consummation of marriage, on account of certain traditional beliefs, say for example, the intervention of the month of Aadi. If such a woman is held to be not entitled to the benefit of Section 17 of the Act, on account of a strict interpretation to Section 2(f) of the Act that she did not either live or at any point of time lived together in the shared household, such a woman will be left remediless despite a valid marriage...

...A narrow interpretation to Sections 2(f), 2(s) and 17 of the Act, would leave many a woman in distress, without a remedy. Therefore, in my considered view a healthy and correct interpretation to Sections 2(f) and 2(s) would be that the words “live” or “have at any point of time lived” would include within their purview “the right to live”.

A similar approach was adopted by the Bombay High Court in Sarika Mahendra v. Mahendra to overcome the shortcomings that were placed by virtue of Paragraph 26 in Batra.

Thus, the High Courts in Vandana and in Sarika Mahendra viewed the issue not from the traditional patriarchal perspective, but from the larger issue of the protection of the battered woman, and the efficacy of the residence order to be passed under Section 19 of the Act.

The decision in Ahuja was arrived at by a literal interpretation of the words, “at any time has lived” in Sec. 2(s). While Batra interpreted this section in one way, Ahuja did so in another way.

In both cases, the approach of the Supreme Court was to focus only on the right (as it has done in earlier occasions), and not on the underlying need to remove the insecurity of the battered woman. This approach, it is humbly submitted, misses the point behind the Domestic Violence Act.

The patriarchal mindset must be shed. The courts must interpret the Act from the point of view of the battered woman; not to rescue her (the patriarchal approach), but with the aspiration to ensure for her a safe space free from insecurity. The Madras High Court (in Vandana) and the Bombay High Court (in Sarika Surendra) succeeded in doing so. Ahuja does not.

As Sandra Berns argues in her work, Judicial Decision Making and Moral Responsibility,

“Without a vision of who we are and what we might become, our critical impulse is necessarily barren.”

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