Thursday, March 4, 2021

No alimony when man not of marriageable age

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He could not legally marry because he was only 20. But he was still ordered to pay alimony to a girl for a “deemed” marriage.

The bizarre situation had Supreme Court judges in a quandary on Friday, and they decided to delve deeper to untangle the legal riddle.

A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, was left amused when advocate Rachitta Priyanka Rai unfolded the facts of her case.

Rai’s client was 20 when he eloped with a woman, 18, from the same village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district in March 2006.

The couple went to Jamshedpur where they lived together for around a week. When they came back to their village, the petition stated, the panchayat tried to get them married, but a ruckus followed and the wedding never took place.

Subsequently, the woman filed two cases against the man – one alleging cruelty, and another demanding maintenance on the ground that their live-in relationship had to be treated as a relationship in the nature of a marriage.

The trial court, as per the petition filed through Lexolve Partners, sentenced the man to one year in jail under the charge of cruelty. He was also ordered to pay 5,000 to the woman every month as maintenance.

When the man filed appeals against these orders, the Jharkhand High Court dropped the criminal case, holding that since they never got married, the charge of cruelty under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code was not made out. But the order to pay maintenance was upheld.

On Friday, Rai commenced her arguments before the bench, which also included justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, highlighting the legal conundrum that surfaced due to the alimony order. She referred to her client’s educational certificate to show he was only 20 at the time of this relationship.

“The law is clear that valid age for a man to marry is 21. When a man cannot enter into a valid wedlock because of the prohibition of age under the law, how can any relationship be treated as a ‘deemed’ marriage if the man is less than 21? How can my client be asked to pay maintenance when he was not even in the legal age to marry?” she questioned.

The lawyer added that the high court also erred in treating this as a “domestic” relationship while the couple fled the village, was hiding at different places in Jamshedpur, and lived together only for a week.

“Staying together for just a week cannot be a period good enough to consider this as a proper relationship, let alone treat this as a ‘domestic’ relationship under the law,” Rai contended.

At first, the bench was of the view that Rai’s client should pay at least half of the sum ordered as maintenance but the lawyer convinced the judges that the high court order was wrong on several aspects.

Rai’s persuasion made the court stay the order to pay maintenance, while the CJI added: “You may succeed in your case eventually.”

Former additional solicitor general Pinky Anand and senior advocate told HT: “The high court seems to have committed a gross error in allowing maintenance in this case. It was at best a short live-in affair.”

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