This article attempts to bring some clarity on the law relating to recognition of foreign divorce decrees in India, in what circumstances they are valid, and when not? I’ve also tried throwing light on the process and procedure of challenging or upholding the same in India, read on.
A Happy marriage is a harbour in the tempest of life – an unhappy one a tempest in the harbour of life. A Marriage that is devoid love, care and affection deserves, in my firm view to be done away with, whether or not either party wants to stick with it. It is sad that Indian Law is still pretty rigid in that regard primarily because of the notion of marriage being a sacrament. Obtaining a Divorce in India is an ordeal unless both parties consent to it. To get a contested divorce one needs to prove grounds such as cruelty/adultery/desertion etc, which is extremely difficult and time consuming. (The process & procedure of getting a contested divorce in India is explained in my article Divorce in India. All you need to know about contested and mutual divorce). Indian Law does not recognise ’Irretrievable breakdown/Irreconcilable differences’ as ground for divorce.
As a Divorce Lawyer, day in day out I’ve been getting queries on the validity of a Foreign Divorces in India. This is an area fraught with many conflicting opinions and judgments full of legalease, let me articulate the basics of foreign divorces in India.
We take the example of a couple married in India as per the Indian Law (Special Marriage Act or Hindu Marriage Act). Now since the couple married in India, wherever they go – they take their personal law with them. Hence even if they subsequently settle in some other part of the world – their marriage and consequently their divorce would still be governed by Indian Law.
GENERAL PRINCIPLE – FOREIGN DIVORCE HOLDS GOOD IN INDIA
Contrary to a lot of misconceptions, as per the General Principle of Law (Section 13 CPC) A foreign decree is conclusive in India in normal circumstances. This is based on principle of res judicata – meaning that when a dispute has been adjudicated by a court it should not be re-agitated again & again – to prevent wastage of judicial time & expense and more importantly to ensure finality and certainty in human relations. Hence we start with the presumption that a foreign divorce is valid in India.
EXCEPTIONS – WHEN FOREIGN DIVORCE WON’T BE RECOGNISED IN INDIA
The Indian Law would refuse to recognise it – when any of the following conditions are present :-
a) When Granted by Court not authorised by Indian Law to grant the same: When the decree is passed by a court having no jurisdiction (meaning authority to decide) as per the Indian Law; which leads us to the question which courts have jurisdiction as per the Indian Law, normally the court of place where marriage is solemnised (normally India) or where the parties last resided together as husband and wife, and where the opposite party resides (non applicant). Courts of all these places shall have jurisdiction.
b) When one side is not heard or his/her submissions not taken on record: That the decree is not passed on merits – ‘on merits’ in layman terms means the court took both side’s submissions into consideration before deciding the case – if it is not done – then decree does not hold good in India. The problem arises when one spouse serves a divorce summon on the other and the other spouse leaves the country and comes back to India, and a decree is passed ex parte (in absence of that party). In these cases if it is established that party left jurisdiction just to avoid the divorce proceedings and was otherwise there, the decree should be valid in India, for no court should allow such fraud to take place ;
c) On a ground not recognised by Indian Law: When the Divorce is granted on grounds not recognised in India – for those who arrived late – Cruelty/Adultery/Desertion/Impotency are grounds that Indian Law recognises, so if the divorce is granted on these grounds – The decree is valid in India. Please note that in such a case it need not be validated in India by filing a suit or anything. It is the burden of person challenging the decree to discredit it.
Now the basic problem is encountered here – Indian Diaspora is increasingly getting divorces on the ground of ‘irreconcilliable differences/irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ which is also known as no fault divorce. In this species of divorce – cruelty/adultery need not be established. If the court feels without going to faults/allegations etc – that the couple cannot be expected to live together now and their bond seems to be broken irreparably – Court grants divorce. Normally in such cases the court would grant a decree nisi (temporary) that is turned into absolute (permanent divorce) after 6 months or so (depending on state law). Within these six months the opposite party gets a right to oppose or consent to divorce, in either case it is normally granted.
Sadly this divorce is not valid in India because ‘irreconcilliable differences/irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ is not recognised in India as a ground for divorce, though a bill to that effect is pending in Indian Parliament and may be passed in the future. But as of today such decrees are not binding in India.
Hence a word of advise instead of going in for a no fault divorce – a fault divorce (cruelty) etc should be obtained, which is somewhat difficult, but unimpeachable in India.
d) When the proceedings are against principles of Natural Justice? Now in simple terms principles of natural justice are certain principles which broadly make the judicial proceedings fair and just. For eg : both parties should know allegations levelled and be given a fair opportunity to be put forth their case, judge being impartial is also a facet of natural justice.
Again the question comes – if on filing a divorce the other party leaves jurisdiction and runs back to India (normally wives tend to do that) in such a case, it would again be a question of intention and the decree cannot be said to be against natural justice if party herself evades the court when otherwise a permanent resident was established there. In a matter which I am consulting currently the woman is fighting child custody/property matters in US and is a permanent resident, but we know it for sure when the man files the divorce – in order to prevent that she would run back to India – in such a case I feel the divorce decree granted even in her absence should be valid. Though this is a grey area but when she had adequate opportunity to defend – any attempt to frustrate judicial process by running away should be dealt with stern hands.
There may be another situation where the spouse is in India and the other spouse files for divorce outside India, in such situation even after the spouse in India is served (notice is sent and received) any decree passed in absence won’t be valid in India, unless the court feels that the other party had ample opportunity to go, engage counsel and defend in that country. Normally in decrees passed against women in India, Indian Courts have refused to recognise them.
e) If it is obtained by fraud: if a decree is obtained by misrepresentation of facts or fraud – then the same is not valid in India.
The above are the cases where a foreign divorce won’t be recognised in India, and may lead to a situation where a person may be divorced(and single) in one country yet married in Indian law, and this can spell disaster in case of subsequent marriage as bigamy proceedings may be initiated against such person.
If your divorce is valid in India as per the above test – it is not a requirement of law for you to validate it, however you may still do so in order to start from a clean slate and avoid belated disputes.
If your divorce is not valid in India – it has to be challenged by filing a suit for declaration as to your marital status and invalidity of such a foreign decree, burden of proof being on the person who challenges.
I hope I’ve been able to clear some airs on the question of foreign divorce decrees and their validity in India.
My next article would be on validity of child custody decrees passed in foreign courts.
*The Author Bharat Chugh is a Supreme Court advocate specializing in Divorce Laws in India, particularly jurisprudence relating to foreign divorces, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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