In a significant development with far reaching consequences, we saw how just recently on May 6, 2022, the Bombay High Court in a remarkable, rational, refreshing, and robust judgment titled Sheetal Devang Shah vs Presiding Officer in Writ Petition No. 3323 of 2019 observed without mincing any words that a daughter-in-law cannot be directed to pay maintenance to her ailing mother-in-law, especially in the absence of any proof of the woman's income. The Court observed that, "We have reservations about such direction to SS (daughter-in-law) to pay maintenance amount to the mother-in-law…Be that as it may, upon perusal of the original record, we do not find a single document showing the earnings of SS (daughter-in-law)." It noted that Section 2(a) of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 that defines 'children' includes son, daughter, grandson and grand-daughter, but does not refer to the daughter-in-law. While observing thus, the Bench of Justice SS Shinde and Justice Revati Mohite Dere of Bombay High Court set aside the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Tribunal's order to the limited extent.
To start with, this learned, laudable and landmark judgment sets the ball rolling by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, "This Bench has been specially constituted to hear the petitioner's aforesaid petition and other petitions, by the Hon'ble Chief Justice. Both the members of this Bench preside over their respective Benches and have to disturb their regular boards, to assemble only for these matters.
1.1. On 27th April 2022, we heard the learned counsel for the parties from 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and closed the matter for orders.
1.2. This Writ Petition under Article 226 of the Constitution of India is filed by the petitioner thereby taking an exception to the order dated 16.08.2019 passed by respondent No.1 - Presiding Officer of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens' Tribunal (for short 'Tribunal').
1.3. The only substantive prayer in the petition reads as under:-
That this Hon'ble Court be pleased to call for the records and proceedings from the Respondent No.1 and after perusing the legality and propriety of the impugned order dated 16.08.2019 passed by the Respondent No.1, this Hon'ble Court be pleased to issue a Writ of Certiorari and/or any other appropriate Writ, order or direction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and quash and set aside the impugned order dated 16.08.2019 passed by the Respondent No.1 at Exhibit-A;."
In hindsight, the Bench then recalls in para 2 that, "During the pendency of this petition, the Division Bench of this Court (Coram: S. C. Dharmadhikari and G. S. Patel, JJ.), by order dated 18.09.2019, directed thus,
"5.(c) Since it is stated that the Petitioner may be dispossessed tomorrow and by using force, we direct that until further orders of this Court, the operative direction No.3 which directs the Petitioner to hand over vacant and peaceful possession of the premises to her in-laws be not acted upon or implemented."
2.1. The aforesaid direction / interim order is in force till date.""
While elaborating on the background, the Bench then states in para 3 that, "Background facts leading to the filing of this petition are as under:-
3.1. Respondent No.1 / non-applicant has passed the order (impugned in the present petition) in the proceedings instituted by Smt. Nalini Mahendra Shah - respondent No.2 herein and her husband - Mahendra Shah. Since during the pendency of the present writ petition, husband of respondent No.2 died, with the permission of the Court, his name has been deleted from the array of the respondents. Respondent No.4 - Mr. Devang Shah is the husband of the petitioner as also the son of respondent No.2. Present petitioner - Ms. Sheetal Shah is the daughter-in-law of respondent No.2 and respondent No.3 (deleted)."
As an aside, the Bench then mentions in para 4 that, "For the sake of convenience, parties shall be referred to by their names and not by their status before the Tribunal or this Court."
To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 5 that, "Nalini Shah and her husband Mahendra Shah filed the application No.SDO/SCNo.SDO/JNVMP/Desk-6/SR-38 of 2018 before the Tribunal constituted under the provisions of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. Briefly stated contentions of the applicants therein viz., Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, were as under:-
- that, they are staying at Saprem, Plot No.20, 3rd Road, Juhu Scheme, Vile Parle (West), Mumbai - 400 056 (hereinafter referred to as the 'residential premises').
- Devang Shah is the only son of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah and Sheetal Shah is their daughter-in-law. They all are residing in the aforesaid residential premises.
- Nalini Shah is the housewife and her husband Mahendra Shah (deceased) was employed in the renowned business of diamond and diamond jewellery at Opera House. Mahendra Shah retired from the said business in the year 2016 and he had no other residential premises, save and except the residential premises at Saprem, Plot No.20, 3rd Road, Juhu Scheme, Vile Parle (West), Mumbai - 400 056.
- Devang Shah is the employee of Supergems India Private Limited and Sheetal Shah is working as a fashion designer. Both of them are receiving handsome salary.
- the aforesaid residential premises is in the name of Mahendra Shah and Nalini Shah.
- It was alleged that Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah are unable to look after Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah and from last one year, they are not looking after necessities of life of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah. From January - February 2017 till the filing of the application, they were harassed in the said residential premises though they are the owners of the said house. Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah, both, are torturing Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, physically as well as mentally.
- Nalini Shah is suffering from asthma, vergio, back pain and leg pain.
5.1. In the aforesaid background, facts and circumstances, the said application was filed by Nalini Shah and her husband Mahendra Shah."
To recapitulate, the Bench then recalls in para 25 that, "The Tribunal framed the following four issues of enquiry, which are as under:-
"1) Are the applicants capable of supporting themselves and meeting their basic needs ?
2) Is there any evidence that the respondent is not taking proper care of the applicant and is causing mental and physical harassment to the applicants?
3) Can the request made by the applicant be accepted?
4) What will be the orders?""
As it turned out, the Bench then observed in para 26 that, "The Tribunal, after adverting to the contentions raised by the parties and documents placed on record, observed that at the relevant time, applicant No.1 - Nalini Shah was 77 years old and applicant No.2 - Mahendra Shah was 79 years old. It is also observed that the said applicants are not in a position to work. The Tribunal observed that though it is contended by Sheetal Shah, that Nalini Shah is having share trading business and also Mahendra Shah has business of diamond and jewellery, Sheetal Shah has not submitted any evidence before the Tribunal to that effect. It is further observed, that even if the said contention of Sheetal Shah is accepted, in that case also, considering the age of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, it cannot be said that they are capable of supporting themselves from their own earnings. It is also observed that the family members viz., Devang Shah and Sheetal Shah should treat Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah with kindness, consideration and respect and that they should provide them basic necessities for a peaceful life. It is also observed that the kindness, consideration and respect cannot be bought with money. It is the responsibility of Devang Shah and Sheetal Shah being son and daughter-in-law of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah to pay attention to the daily needs of the applicants and to try their best to meet those needs. Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah are dependent upon Devang Shah and Sheetal Shah for their daily necessities, mental support and care and accordingly, issue No.1 is answered in the affirmative."
As we see, the Bench then mentions in para 27 that, "Upon perusal of the original record of the proceedings instituted by Nalini Shah, we are in respectful agreement with the said observations made by the Tribunal while answering issue No.1 except to the extent that, it holds Sheetal Shah, (daughter-in-law of Nalini Shah) alongwith Devang Shah, liable to pay maintenance."
It cannot be glossed over that the Bench then notes in para 28 that, "We have carefully perused the observations made by the Tribunal while answering issue No.2 i.e., whether there is any evidence that Sheetal Shah is not taking proper care of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah and is causing mental and physical harassment to them. We have no doubt in our mind, that the observations made and the findings recorded by the Tribunal, that Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah are not taking proper care of the applicants and causing mental and physical harassment to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, are in consonance with the documents on record. We have also carefully perused the various complaints filed by Nalini Shah and Sheetal Shah, and we find that there is no peace and harmony in the house. There is unrest and also there is a mental and physical harassment to the old aged parents of Devang Shah. While exercising writ jurisdiction, it is not desirable to undertake exercise of disputed questions of fact, and more particularly, when we find that the observations/findings recorded by the Tribunal, while answering issue No.2, that Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah in the said application are causing mental and physical harassment to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, are made keeping in view the material placed on record."
Furthermore, the Bench then enunciates in para 29 that, "The Tribunal, while discussing issue No.3 i.e., "Can the request made by the applicant be accepted?", has made reference to various documents placed on record by the parties and in particular documents in relation to the said residential premises wherein, the parties are residing, and has reached a conclusion, that the residential premises is in the name of Mahendra Shah, who has inherited the same, from his parents. The Tribunal has also considered the effect of giving such property as a gift by Mahendra Shah to Devang Shah and after adverting to the provisions of Section 23 of the said Act, which provides for protection of life and property of senior citizens and as such, has correctly reached the conclusion, that the applicants' (Nalini and Mahendra Shah) request for exclusion of Devang Shah from the suit property can be granted. It would be relevant to reproduce hereinbelow the provisions of Section 23(1) of the said Act, which reads as under:-
"23. Transfer of property to be void in certain circumstances.-
(1) Where any senior citizen who, after the commencement of this Act, has transferred by way of gift or otherwise, his property, subject to the condition that the transferee shall provide the basic amenities and basic physical needs to the transferor and such transferee refuses or fails to provide such amenities and physical needs, the said transfer of property shall be deemed to have been made by fraud or coercion or under undue influence and shall at the option of the transferor be declared void by the Tribunal.""
It deserves mentioning that the Bench then mentions in para 30 that, "The Tribunal, ultimately concluded, that Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah are not taking proper care of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, but are causing mental and physical harassment to them. As already observed, the age of Nalini Shah and her husband Mahendra Shah was 77 and 79 years respectively, at the relevant time, when they preferred the application. It is brought on record by the parties, that during the pendency of the petition, Mahendra Shah died. At present, Nalini Shah, wife of Mahendra Shah, is aged about 82 years. On couple of dates of hearing before us, she attended Court proceedings sitting on a wheel chair, that itself shows that she is certainly dependent upon Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah for physical and mental support."
What's more, the Bench then discloses in para 31 that, "After answering the issues framed, the Tribunal accepted the case of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah and directed Devang Shah and Sheetal Shah together to pay Rs.25,000/- (Rupees Twenty Five Thousand only) per month to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah for their maintenance, subsistence and medical expenses, by depositing the said amount, in the bank accounts of Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah."
Most crucially, the Bench then minces no words to hold in para 32 that, "We have reservations about such direction to Sheetal Shah to pay maintenance amount to Nalini Shah. As already observed, in Section 2(a), 'children' include son, daughter, grandson and grand-daughter and there is no reference to the daughter-in-law. Be that as it may, upon perusal of the original record, we do not find a single document showing the earnings of Sheetal Shah. In that view of the matter, the Impugned Order, to the extent that it directs Sheetal Shah to pay Rs.25,000/- alongwith her husband Devang Shah to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah, cannot be legally sustained. However, so far direction given to Devang Shah to pay the said maintenance amount to Nalini Shah, the same is legally sustainable."
It cannot be lightly dismissed that the Bench then clearly states in para 33 that, "The Tribunal has directed Devang Shah and Sheetal Shah to handover the possession of entire residential premises i.e., Saprem, Plot No.20, 3rd Road, Juhu Scheme, Vile Parle (West), Mumbai - 400 056 to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah (since deceased) in a peaceful manner. In our opinion, said direction given by the Tribunal is legally and factually sustainable, in as much as, when the application was decided by the Tribunal, the subject property stood in the name of husband of Nalini Shah, namely, Mahendra Shah. Relying upon the various documents placed on record including criminal complaints and other materials, the Tribunal has correctly reached a conclusion, that there is a continuous mental as well as physical harassment to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah (since deceased)."
Quite ostensibly, the Bench then holds in para 34 that, "In that view of the matter, we are of the opinion that the view taken by the Tribunal, after adverting to the material placed on record, is legally as well as factually sustainable. Therefore, we confirm the order passed by the Tribunal except the direction to Sheetal Shah to pay jointly with Devang Shah, maintenance of Rs.25,000/- to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah. Therefore, the direction to Sheetal Shah to that extent is quashed and set aside. However, as already observed, the son of Nalini Shah namely, Devang Shah is obliged to pay the said maintenance amount to Nalini Shah."
Most remarkably, the Bench then holds in para 35 that, "The Tribunal in clause (3) of the operative order has observed that, within 15 days from the date of receipt of the order, Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah shall handover the entire possession of the residential premises in question, to Nalini Shah and Mahendra Shah (deceased) in a peaceful manner and at the same time, observed that Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah, should make separate arrangements for their own accommodation elsewhere. Keeping in view the said direction, we are of the opinion that Devang Shah, being the husband of Sheetal Shah is obliged to provide separate accommodation to Sheetal Shah and her sons elsewhere."
In addition, the Bench then directs in para 36 that, "With the above observations, we dismiss the writ petition."
Not stopping here, the Bench then holds in para 38 that, "Since the interim relief is operating till date, we deem it appropriate to grant further six weeks' time to the petitioner, to act in compliance with the directions contained in clause (3) of the operative part of Tribunal's order i.e. Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah should hand over the entire possession of the residential premises in question, to Nalini Shah in a peaceful manner. In the said clause (3), the Tribunal has also directed Sheetal Shah and Devang Shah to make separate arrangements for their own accommodation elsewhere. As already observed in para 35 hereinabove, Devang Shah (respondent No.4), being husband of Sheetal Shah and thus guardian of two sons is legally obliged to provide them accommodation befitting his status, income and assets."
For sake of clarity, the Bench clarifies in para 39 that, "The observations made hereinabove, are restricted to adjudication of the present proceedings and will have no bearing on the proceedings pending between the parties and the orders passed therein, by the appropriate courts of competent jurisdiction or forum provided under the Statute."
Finally, the Bench then concludes by holding in para 40 that, "All concerned parties to act upon ordinary copy of this order duly authenticate by court Sheristadar."
In a nutshell, the Bombay High Court has made it unequivocally clear that a daughter-in-law cannot be directed to pay maintenance to her ailing mother-in-law under Senior Citizens Act. We have discussed the reasons in detail. All courts must abide by what the Bombay High Court has held. No denying it!