The apex court judgment was followed by similar suggestions from the National Commission for Women (NCW). In June this year, in response to recommendations made by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the NCW sought a change in the definition of 'wife' as described in Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which deals with maintenance. The NCW recommended that women in live-in relationships should be entitled to maintenance if the man deserts her.
Emphasising the need for broadening the definition of wife in the CrPC section, NCW officials said there had been cases where the man led the woman to believe that he was unmarried or was divorced or widowed and went ahead with the formalities required by marriage laws or the custom governing him. As a way of countering this, NCW chairperson Girija Vyas suggested that even if a marriage was not registered, a woman's claim would stand if she provided enough proof of a long-term relationship. This underscored the Supreme Court's stand that a man and woman, having lived together for long, would be presumed to have been married, unless it was rebutted by convincing evidence.
The recent ruling is only the latest in a series of recommendations by various bodies seeking equal rights for the married woman and live-in female partner. A recommendation by the Justice Malinath Committee to the Law Commission of India (2003) stated that if a woman has been in a live-in relationship for a reasonable time, she should enjoy the legal rights of a wife. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) provides protection to women at the hands of their husbands as well as live-in partners, and his relatives. When the law came into force in October 2006, it did not distinguish between the woman who is married and the woman who is in a live-in relationship.
The SC ruling in itself has its precedent in a 1927 judgment made by the Privy Council, the Supreme Court's predecessor in pre-independent India. In A Dinohamy v. WL Blahamy, the Council laid down a general principle: "Where a man and a woman are proved to have lived together as a man and wife, the law will presume, unless the contrary be clearly proved, that they were living together in consequence of a valid marriage and not in a state of concubinage."
The Council made significant additions to the 1927 ruling in 1929 in Mohabhat Ali Vs Mohammad Ibrahim Khan. It said: "The law presumes in favour of marriage and against concubinage when a man and woman have cohabited continuously for a number of years." For a live-in couple to be considered validly married, the court wanted evidence of cohabitation for a number of years, without specifying the minimum number of years.
In Gokal Chand and Pravin Kumari (1952), the Supreme Court reiterated the 1929 principle. However, it added that though the presumption for a valid marriage between a live-in couple could be drawn from their long cohabitation, it wasn't enough to earn them legitimacy if the evidence of their living together was rebuttable. In this judgment, the apex court refused to recognise a live-in relationship, though the couple had lived together for some years before the pregnant woman decided to live alone with her child born out of a live-in relationship with the man. The rebuttal of a presumption in favour of a valid marriage, in this case, came from the child, who said she did not remember her father ever visiting her or her mother.
In Badri Prasad (1978), the Supreme Court recognised a live-in relationship as a valid marriage, accusing...