Mediation must before divorce: SC

New Delhi, Feb. 22: The Supreme Court today directed that all criminal courts must try to adopt mediation efforts to settle matrimonial disputes, particularly cases of Section 498A under the IPC that covers harassment of a woman by her husband and his family members.

The apex court passed a series of directives while granting Srinvas Rao divorce from Deepa after holding the wife guilty of falsely accusing her mother-in-law of asking her to sleep with the father-in-law and slapping criminal cases against the family.

Section 498A is a cognisable offence with a punishment of up to three years in jail and a fine and is non-compoundable, which rules out an out-of-court settlement.

But the apex court today said courts can try to strike a compromise between a couple.

In this case, Deepa was married to Srinivas on April 25, 1999, but on the very next day, the couple separated after a quarrel between the elders in the two families. Subsequently, Deepa lodged a complaint under 498A against the husband and in-laws, alleging that the mother-in-law had asked her to sleep with the father-in-law.

Srinivas filed a suit for divorce that was granted by the trial court on the ground that the allegations were baseless and hence he was entitled to divorce "for cruelty". The husband and the family members were also acquitted of the charge of harassment.

The wife appealed in the high court against the grant of divorce and sought restitution of conjugal rights. She also challenged the acquittal in the criminal case.

Andhra Pradesh High Court on November 8, 2006, set aside the divorce decree, following which the husband appealed in the Supreme Court.

Upholding the appeal, a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai said: "In our opinion, the first instance of mental cruelty is seen in the scurrilous, vulgar and defamatory statement made by the respondent-wife in her complaint dated 4/10/1999 addressed to the Superintendent of Police, Women Protection Cell.…

"It is his case that this humiliation of his parents caused great anguish to him. He and his family were traumatised by the false and indecent statement made in the complaint. His grievance appears to us to be justified," Justice Ranjana, writing the judgment, said.

The apex court noted the statement made by the wife and her mother in which they admitted to having falsely implicated the husband's family but now wanted to withdraw the case as Deepa wanted to live with Srinivas and his family.

"A marriage which is dead for all purposes cannot be revived by the court's verdict, if the parties are not willing. This is because marriage involves human sentiments and emotions and if they are dried up there is hardly any chance of their springing back to life on account of artificial reunion created by the court's decree," the bench said, granting the divorce.

The apex court, however, said many marriages are breaking down because of ego clashes. Hence, it passed the following directions:

(a) In terms of Section 9 of the Family Courts Act, the family courts shall make all efforts to settle matrimonial disputes through mediation. Even if the counsellors submit a failure report, the family courts shall, with the consent of the parties, refer the matter to the mediation centre.

In such a case, however, the family courts shall set a reasonable time limit for mediation centres to complete the process of mediation…. In a given case, if there is good chance of settlement, the family court in its discretion, can always extend the time limit.

(b) The criminal courts dealing with the complaint under Section 498A of the IPC should… refer the parties to a mediation centre if they feel that there exist elements of settlement and both the parties are willing. However, they should take care to see that in this exercise, rigour, purport and efficacy of Section 498-A of the IPC is not diluted….

(c) All mediation centres shall set up pre-litigation desks/clinics; give them wide publicity and make efforts to settle matrimonial disputes at pre-litigation stage.

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