The parties in a live-in relationship or non-formal relationship who have lived together for an extended period of time could be brought within the purview of law relating to maintenance and domestic violence and could be considered as husband and wife for the said limited purpose. However, parties to such a relationship cannot be elevated to marital status.
Mr. S. Reghunathan, an employee of South Western Railways, died on 31/1/2009 while in service. After his death, the Appellant as well as the first Respondent claiming herself to be his legally wedded wife came forward and raised rival claims before the Railways, the Respondents 2 to 4, for his service benefits.
Since the issue could not be settled at the official level, the first Respondent instituted an original petition before the Family Court, Thiruvalla (for short ‘the court below’) invoking S.7 (b), (c), and (d) of the Family Courts Act 1984 to declare her marital status as the wife of late Reghunathan, and also for a permanent prohibitory injunction to restrain the Respondents 2 to 4 from disbursing the family pension and other death benefits of late Reghunathan to the Appellant, and lastly to restrain the Appellant from receiving the same. The Court below allowed the original petition and granted the reliefs sought for to the first Respondent vide the impugned judgment.
Both the Appellant and the first Respondent contended that they are the legally wedded wife of late Reghunathan and two children each were born in their respective wedlock and they alone are entitled to receive the family pension and other service benefits of the deceased. Subsequently, the Respondent filed a petition before the Family Court to declare her as the wife of late Reghunathan and sought a permanent prohibitory injunction to restrain the authorities from disbursing family pension and other benefits to the Appellant.
The Family Court granted the aforementioned reliefs through its judgment. The present appeal has been filed challenging the said judgment. The question that arose for consideration before the Bench was who among the Appellant and the Respondent was the legally wedded wife of the deceased Reghunathan.
The Bench observed evidence presented by both sides and opined that there was concrete evidence to prove the valid marriage between the Respondent and late Reghunathan, and the pursuant long cohabitation between them. The evidence tendered by the Appellant was found to be weak, shabby, and insufficient to prove her case. The Division Bench admitted that generally, long cohabitation of a man and woman for a number of years may raise the presumption of a valid marriage unless proved otherwise. However, it was observed that when there is evidence of long cohabitation of a man with two women simultaneously begetting children in both relationships, one pursuant to a ceremonial marriage and the other one not, the presumption of valid marriage leans in favour of the former even if the latter relationship commenced prior in point of time.
The main relief sought for is a declaration as to the status of the First Respondent as the legally wedded wife of late Reghunathan. It will squarely fall under S.7(b) of the Family Courts Act. The reliefs of permanent prohibitory injunction sought are ancillary reliefs to the main relief of declaration. It falls under Explanation (c) and (d). Fundamentally, the dispute is between the Appellant and the first Respondent as to their marital status.
To decide the dispute involved in the case, the presence of Respondents 2 to 4 are not even necessary. Their position in the array of parties is also not all relevant so long as the suit or proceedings in substance and in its core is between the Appellant and the first Respondent. They can only be treated as a pro forma Respondent and, hence, no notice under Section 80 is required. The Railway authorities are at liberty to take a decision on the entitlement of the death benefits of late Reghunathan based on the declaration of marital status made in favour of the First Respondent in these proceedings. The relief of permanent injunction granted by the court below against a party, that too formal, outside the matrimony, is uncalled for and is, thus, liable to be set aside.
The relief of permanent prohibitory injunction granted against the Respondents 2 to 4 is set aside. The relief of declaration and the relief of permanent prohibitory injunction granted against the Appellant are confirmed. No costs.
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