Across India, high courts' approach to live-in relationships appears to be caught in contradictions

Live-in relationships have faced tumultuous judicial interpretations in the recent past. Recently, Rajasthan High Court granted police prot...

Live-in relationships have faced tumultuous judicial interpretations in the recent past. Recently, Rajasthan High Court granted police protection to a live-in couple on the grounds that, denying them the same would amount to court subscribing to social morality, but not constitutional morality, and that the courts must protect the fundamental right to life and liberty of individuals and ensure its commitment to individual autonomy in the face of societal pressures.

Judgments in the past, which have granted police protection to live-in couples, have shared this reasoning in some way or the other. However, in other cases, judges have starkly differed with this reasoning and have denied protection to such couples- going on to the extent of saying that allowing such protection would amount to court encouraging a criminal and morally unacceptable act.

Whilst at a cursory glance, high courts appear to be vacillating in their final conclusions, but on deeper analysis one can observe the pattern and psyche behind the reasoning of these judgments. It is this ‘reasoning’ aspect that needs to be explored further.

Court decisions on protection

In a question before the court that whether police protection could be granted to a live-in couple to protect their life and liberty (in case, either one or both of them were already married), the court answered in the negative.

The court reasoned that (a) such relationship cannot exist if either one of the persons is already married, as the same would be a violation of statutory norms, (b) such relationship would be considered as an illicit and unholy relationship, something that would be detrimental to the social fabric of the society and marriage as an institution itself, (c) protection granted through court order would amount to court giving a seal of approval to the commission of offences, and (d) such relationships cannot be morally accepted in society.

Various judgments have used a combination of these reasons to reach the same conclusion, i.e. denying protection to these live-in couples.

Whereas, in cases where the court allowed protection to the live-in couples, the reasoning comprised of, (a) protection of life and liberty of individuals irrespective of the nature of relationship (unsocial or immoral) between them is of paramount importance, (b) the commitment of right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution gives protection to even ‘illegal’ relationships, (c) social morality cannot take over the role of constitutional morality, i.e. societal expectations cannot subsume individual autonomy and (d) the question of protection of life and liberty is separate from the question of the validity of such relationships and that the courts must refrain from passing any moral judgments in that regards.

Interpreting the courts’ interpretations

In absence of a vibrant jurisprudence on the subject, those who seek protection for their shared spaces in furtherance of the fundamental rights bestowed upon them under Article 21 are often shunned from their constitutional guarantees.

It can be observed that judges have differed in their interpretations in somewhat similar fact scenarios: a live-in couple seeking police protection from courts against parental and societal threats. While different interpretations in different fact scenarios is quite possible, however, such interpretations have to be based upon the facts and the position of law in the specific cases.

It is one thing to say that the couple seeking protection from the court are denied the same due to factors like, either one of them are minors or that there are no parental and societal pressures (which could be ascertained only after a thorough investigation). It is quite another thing to suggest that the couple does not deserve protection because they have committed a morally repugnant or a criminal act.

The varying reasons accorded by high courts, apart from relying upon biases stemming out of the contemporary societal perceptions, additionally, often revolve around loose interpretations of the Constitution.

It is, thus, essential to briefly engage with the legal reasoning adopted by the courts while denying protection to the couples in a live-in relationship before dwelling deeper into the ‘moral’ and ‘societal’ reasons accorded by the courts.

From a purely legal and constitutional vantage point, the question of protection must be centred on the dimension of the facts of the case – the courts, like the ones stated above, should not venture into their own moral considerations guised as societal morality to decide a case.

In this regard, a dichotomy between unmarried couples and a couple involving married individual(s) can be observed – when denying protection for the latter, the court resorts to a legal recourse by claiming that the said live-in relationship is itself illegal and that granting protection would tantamount to giving legal sanction to an ‘illegal and illicit’ act.

However, the glaring flaw in this line of reasoning could be exposed through the pronouncement in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Ors. (1978) wherein the apex court emphatically laid out that the fundamental rights are sacrosanct and it is incumbent upon all courts of the land to protect the life and liberty of citizens. It is to be understood that the Article 21 is guaranteed to every ‘person’, including criminals or the ones committing illegal acts.

In cases involving these ‘kinds’ of live-in couples, the issue before the court is restricted to their ‘protection’ of ‘life and personal liberty’ and not a full-scale trial involving S.494/495 of the IPC (the individuals involved are not even convicted!).

The other and equally, if not more, important aspect revolves around the observations of the court while denying protection for live-in relationships – the pattern and precedents involved in this regard unequivocally portray the judges’ contempt for such relationships.

In several judgments, illegality of the live-in relationship is accompanied by ‘moral’ assessment of these relationships to deny protection to the ones involved in such relationships. The apex court has time and again emphasized on the autonomy of individuals and the privacy in the choices of adults. It is also a well-settled principle that commenting upon the ‘morality’ of a relationship of two consenting adults is outside the domain of courts.

Herein, the judge’s decision of granting protection to these live-in couples is made dependent upon their marital status. The concern for protection of life and liberty of individual(s) goes for a toss if they are already married. The course of reasoning goes like this: if an individual is already married and is involved in another live-in relationship at the same time, life and liberty of the said individual is considered of lesser importance.

The protection of ‘social fabric’ takes precedence over the protection of ‘life and liberty’ of individuals. It is in this backdrop that expressions like ‘illicit relationship’, ‘unholy alliance’, and ‘immoral’ relationships creep into the judgments denying protection to such couples.

While we must acknowledge that some cases in this regard might be frivolous or involve a minor in a live-in relationship, but even then the Courts must refrain from passing general observations through specific case scenarios.

For instance, in Daya Ram & Anr. vs State of Haryana & Ors., the court went on to say that there has been a rise of these kinds of petitions (live-in couples seeking protection), ordinarily filed by the girls in such relationships without any basis on any ‘real’ or ‘actual’ existence of threat to their life and personal liberty.

This, not only demotivates future legitimate concerns of other couples but also sets a shoddy precedent on a jurisprudential level.

The Rajasthan High Court decision

It is in this backdrop that the Rajasthan High Court’s judgment becomes particularly significant. Justice Pushpendra Singh Bhati placed the constitutional interpretation of Article 21 at the centre to decide upon the question of protection of the live-in couple of the said kind.

Furthermore, Justice Bhati refused to comment and take into consideration the ‘sanctity’ or ‘morality’ of the relationship for deciding upon the limited set of questions raised before the court. By relying upon constitutional principles, Justice Bhati mitigated the discretionary exercise of power, an aspect that can be clearly observed in various judgments.

Abhishek Mishra is a IV Year, B.A..LL.B. (Hons.) student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. Hrithwik Singh is a IV Year, B.A..LL.B. (Hons.) student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India.

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India World News: Across India, high courts' approach to live-in relationships appears to be caught in contradictions
Across India, high courts' approach to live-in relationships appears to be caught in contradictions
India World News
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