This article is written by Ananya Singh, a student of NMIMS, School of law.
The article dwells into the fallacies of S.498A of IPC and its misuse by women. The article attempts to use tools of statutory interpretation namely Mischief rule and Strict construction of penal statutes to determine approaches and interpretation through which the misuse can be obviated. The paper also analyses judgements on S.498A of IPC in which the hon’ble court applied and utilized principles of statutory interpretation and how these principles can be useful to minimalize the misuse of the said provision. A holistic legal approach needs to be adopted to safeguard and empower women and simultaneously control and diminish the misuse.
“A competent legal interpretation is one that maintains an appropriate balance between different levels or senses of meaning.”
Section 498A of IPC is a safeguarding provision for women. It is no new information that women in India since time immemorial are victims of cruelty, if they are unable to fulfil the dowry demanded by their husband or his family. After a surge of cases in and around 1983 related to cruelty against women, this section was introduced to mitigate and remedy the said problem.
Persistent to the dynamic nature of our society, things have evolved and as a result, the social status of women in the due course has also been uplifted since the enactment of the penal code. Gaps and cracks are yet to be filled to ensure equality especially concerning women residing in rural parts of the country.
Women are now educated, they’re aware of their rights and laws that ensure special protection to them from certain crimes. When a woman moves to another house through marriage, she is exposed to unfamiliar environments, and as a consequence she is mistreated and tormented by greedy families. To protect women and curb the evil practices, provisions like S.498A of IPC were enacted.
In an alternate sad reality, it has been observed that aware and educated women often misuse these provisions crafted to ensure their safety. Instead of using them as shields, they become a weapon for revenge and personal vendetta.
S.498A of IPC states – Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty — Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation. — For the purposes of this section, “cruelty” means-
(a) any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or
(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
It is to be noted that the offence committed under this section is Cognizable and a non-bailable.
The cognizable nature of this offence allows several women who understand the grave nature of this, to take undue advantage, harass their in-laws and threaten them with false and mala-fide complaints.
“The factum of over-implication is borne out by the statistical data of the cases under S.498A. Such implication of the relatives of the husband was found to be unjustified in a large number of decided cases. While so, it appears that the women, especially from the poor strata of the society living in rural areas, rarely take resort to the provision”.
This article subsequently will analyse and study implementation of relevant tools for interpretation to point out the lacunas, loopholes within the scope of interpretation, and how relevantly the misuse can be suppressed within the said provision.
Application of mischief rule to mitigate the misuse of s.498a of IPC
In order to draw conclusions, we will analyse the rule and its application and in what ways it can be used to alleviate the misuse of the provision in question.
“Mischief Rule is applicable where the language is capable of more than one meaning. The Court must make such construction of a statute which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.”
The mischief rule is also known as Heydon’s rule or Purposive construction approach, it takes into account four matters before construing or interpreting an Act or provision (i) What was the law before the making of the Act (ii) What was the mischief or defect for which the law did not provide (iii) What is the remedy that the Act has provided, and (iv) What is the reason of the remedy.
When we peruse S.498A of IPC through the glass of Mischief rule and its four conditions, the following can be interpreted (i) before 1983 there was no enactment specifically drawn to suppress the mischief of dowry resulting in cruelty against women in their matrimonial houses. (ii) to reiterate the law was enacted to suppress the evils of cruelty with regards to dowry demanded by Husband and his family against the wife (iii) the act was enacted with a stringent penal provision where the husband and his family who are allegedly inflicting cruelty upon the wife will be arrested effective immediately upon the complaint made by the wife or her parents (iv) the reason for the remedy was to put an immediate stop to the cruelty and impose a deterrent on the wrongdoers and to stop further harm.
From the above examination of the provision, we can understand the intention of the lawmakers, and hence, we can add force and life to cure and remedy the mischief arising according to its true intent. A statute should always be construed according to the true intent of the legislature – sententia legis.
In Heydon’s case and followed by Lord Denning’s judgment in Seaford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher, where the learned Law Lord held:
“He must set to work on the constructive task of finding the intention of Parliament, and he must do this not only from the language of the statute, but also from a consideration of the social conditions which gave rise to it and of the mischief which it was passed to remedy, and then he must supplement the written word so as to give ‘force and life’ to the intention of the legislature.“
It is important to bear in mind with regards to this rule that it intends to suppress and mitigate the mischief arising out of the ambiguous and unclear language of the provision which leaves it susceptible to several interpretations.
The word Husband’s relative in this Section is not defined and women were dragging distant relatives in the matter just to cause trouble and inconvenience to the innocent family members who at the time weren’t even residing in the same city.
In-State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh and further referred to in Shivcaharan Lal Verma v. the State of M.P. the Hon’ble Supreme Court had stated that for the convenience and construction of S.498A the word “relative” would only be limited to blood relations, relatives by marriage, or adoption any other distant relative of the husband will not be prosecuted within the meaning of this Section.
The statute with which we are dealing must be given a fair, pragmatic, and common-sense interpretation to fulfil the object sought to be achieved by the Parliament. The Hon’ble court diligently applied the mischief rule of interpretation to clarify the meaning and hence, this penal section could only be imposed upon close relatives, and the wife would not be able to arbitrarily in malice be able to drag anyone she wants within the blanket term of ‘Husbands relative’.
When the language of a statute in its ordinary meaning and grammatical construction, leads to manifest contradiction of the apparent purpose of the enactment, or some inconvenience or absurdity, hardship or injustice, presumably not intended a construction should be drawn upon which modifies the meaning and ambit of the word.
But it is beyond the scope of this rule to diminish the misuse of this Penal Section arising due to its stringent nature of punishment and procedural application imposed on the alleged parties, the rule of strict construction of penal statutes can be used to ease the misuse and abuse of this penal law.
Application of strict construction of penal statutes to lessen the severity of s.498a to avoid misuse
A statute enacting an offence or imposing a penalty is strictly construed. This rule aims to prioritize liberty of the subject at hand and in case of ambiguity and hardship enables the courts to resolve the doubt in favour of the subject and in contrary to the legislature, this rule initially evolved to mitigate the unnecessary rigour for certain offences.
The section provides a strict counter-intuitive punishment, deterrent nature of the punishment is not always effective it installs fear but that doesn’t stop the commission of the crime and well aware woman seek this as an opportunity to fulfil their vendetta.
In Arnesh Kumar v. the State of Bihar, the apex court stated that the fact, “Section 498-A is a cognisable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under”.
Referring to crime statistics, the apex court said “Its share is 6 per cent out of the total persons arrested under the crimes committed under Indian Penal Code. It accounts for 4.5 per cent of total crimes committed under different sections of penal code, more than any other crimes except theft and hurt,” the rate of charge-sheeting in cases is as high as 93.6 per cent, while the conviction rate is only 15 per cent, which is lowest across all heads.
It is propounded in a court of law that the penal provision is abused to an unimaginable extent, for in a cruel, ruthless and revengeful manner, the young, old and relatives residing at distant places having no involvement with the incident, if any, are roped in. Thus, the abuse of the penal provision has vertically risen.
All Penal statutes have to be construed strictly but the rule emphasises that when there are two approaches the court has to lean towards the more lenient one and the person who is charged always has the right to contest claiming that although punishment awarded is within the black letters of the law but not within the spirit.
It is obligatory on the part of the legislature to bring in protective adjective law and the duty of the constitutional courts to perceive and scrutinize the protective measure so that the social menace is curbed.
Remedial measures can be taken to prevent abuse of the well-intentioned provision. Merely because the provision is constitutional and intra vires, does not give a licence to unscrupulous persons to wreck personal vendetta or unleash harassment.
The Court opined that arrest brings humiliation, curtails freedom and casts scars forever and the police had not learnt its lesson which is implicit and embodied in the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Analysis of procedural enactment
According to S.41 of the CrPC, the police can arrest without a warrant when a cognisable offence is committed in front of him or a reasonable suspicion exists or a credible complaint has been made and in addition to this the police in writing needs to justify the arrest and do primary search and investigation before making such arrests. The police have the authority to make the arrest only when there is an anticipation that the accused will cause further damage, tamper evidence, is a threat to the society or he/she will go in hiding before being produced in the court. The Police officer has to satisfy sub-clauses (a) to (e) under clause (1) of S.41 of CrPC before arresting anybody.
“From a plain reading of the provision, it is evident that a person accused of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may be less than seven years or which may extend to seven years with or without fine, cannot be arrested by the police officer only on his satisfaction that such person had committed the offence punishable as aforesaid.”
The police cannot callously arrest anyone on basis of a mere complaint, sentiments need to kept aside and the alleged accused and aggrieved are to questioned and complaint has to examined in its true colour before making an arrest.
Further, when we analyse S. 41A of CrPC which states that when an arrest is not required to be made as prescribed under S.41 (1) CrPC the police officer must issue a notice and demand the alleged accused to arrive at a specific place and time, the law obliges the police officer to issue this and the accused to comply with it only when he fails to do so an arrest shall be made.
After examining these two procedural provisions which are accessory to the implementation of S.498A of IPC it is affirmed that if the police officers diligently followed the procedure the court won’t be burdened with multiple anticipatory bail applications and only valid and cases with substantive and reasonable proofs and reasons will reach the court.
The rigour of a provision in a criminal statute may provoke the court to tone it down by emphasising on the correct usage of the procedural laws.
Under Section 498-A Indian Penal Code is registered but to satisfy themselves about the necessity for arrest under the parameters laid down above flowing from Section 41 Code of Criminal Procedure; All police officers be provided with a checklist containing specified sub-clauses Under Section 41(1)(b)(ii).
The procedure has always been viewed as the handmaid of justice and not meant to hamper justice, technical misuse tends to be like stumbling blocks which delays and defeats substantive and effective justice.
No arrest can be made in a routine manner on a mere allegation of commission of an offence made against a person. It would be prudent for a police officer in the interest of protection of the constitutional rights of a citizen and perhaps in his interest that no arrest should be made without a reasonable satisfaction reached after some investigation as to the genuineness and bona fides of a complaint and a reasonable belief both as to the person’s complicity and even to the need to effect an arrest.
In Rajesh Sharma and ors. v. State of UP the court laid down certain guidelines to mitigate the misuse of S.498A the guidelines are as followed:
- A family welfare committee will be set up in every district by the district legal service authority. The committee will comprise of Paralegals/Social workers/volunteers/wives of working officers or any other suitable person.
- Any complaint received under S.498A by the police or magistrate will be referred to the committee and accordingly, the committee will submit a report.
- Only based on the report submitted by the committee and upon the merits of the report will any arrest be made by the magistrate or the investigation officer.
- The designated investigation officers in every area will have to undergo at least a week training about this issue.
- These rules will not be applicable when there are tangible physical injuries on the wife or in case of death.
The legislature cleverly and judicially interpreted the provisions of law from the perspective of strict construction of penal code and within their judicial powers has tried to find a middle ground. They have not deviated from the code and language of the sections but issued orders to the concerned authorities who hastily implement the procedural laws.
Now it is the responsibility of the legislature and law reform committees to implement and suggest respectively necessary changes. The offence can be made bailable only in cases where there is no sign of physical harm. In addition to this a monetary fine can be imposed on women filling false complaints. The social and economic status of the women should be taking into consideration, the one belonging to the lower strata should be safeguarded and made aware, instead of those who use this provision as a weapon. An amendment of the provision is a welcomed step or outcome of meticulous interpretation and construction.
Fair procedure and workability of a provision have to ensured so that there will be no unfairness and unreasonableness in implementation and for the said purpose, it has to take the path of interpretation.
“The legislature must find out ways how the makers of frivolous complaints or allegations can be appropriately dealt with. Till then the Courts have to take care of the situation within the existing frame-work”.
Strict construction of penal codes shouldn’t be counter-intuitive, they should be effective. “The more correct version of the doctrine appears to be that statutes of this class are to be fairly construed and faithfully applied according to the intent of the legislature, without ‘unwarrantable severity’ on the one hand or unjustifiable lenity on the other, in cases of doubt the courts inclining to mercy.“
All penal statutes indeed are to be strictly construed in the sense that the court must see that the thing charged as an offence is within the plain meaning of the words used and must not strain the words on any notion that there has been a slip that the thing is so clearly within the mischief that it must have been intended to be included and would have been included in the thought of. All penal provisions like all other statutes are to be fairly construed according to the legislative intent as expressed in the enactment and any deplorable outcome of the legislature should be eradicated.
After a thorough reading and applying rules of statutory interpretation, we can conclude that the evils of S.498 A can be mitigated when tools of interpretation are rightly applied. They can be very effective in closing up the loopholes and fixing legislative lacunas and constructing and interpreting the statutes with relevance to the current social environment.
Mischief rule construed the meaning of word ‘relative’ within the meaning of S.498A of IPC which limited the scope of who all can be prosecuted under this provision. Since even distant relatives were maliciously getting trapped under this stringent provision, it became important to interpret the ambit and intention of the law to eradicate the mischief arising.
With a rise in acquittals under S.498A, to decrease unnecessary piling up of cases the court laid down rules and with the aid of strict construction of penal laws tried to strike a balance towards enabling justice and mitigating injustice, after diligently and judicially within their scope of work interpreted the accessory procedural laws to ensure proper implementation of S.498A.
It would be highly ignorant to say that women today are not victims of cruelty for dowry by their Husbands and in-laws, the practice of dowry even today is prevalent and perpetrating in Indian society and laws need to be in place to safeguard women from such evil practices but it will also be oblivious to state that the provisions enacted decades ago don’t need adequate change and improvement.
Law and society coincide at several levels, both are dynamic. It is very important to note that rules of interpretation come very handy when laws itself becomes problematic. These rules enable courts to draw conclusions which are beyond the ordinary meaning of the words, expression of the text from elements known from and given in the text, conclusions which are in the spirit of the law but beyond the black letter of it.
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- R. S. Allan, Legislative Supremacy and Legislative Intention: Interpretation, Meaning, and Authority. The Cambridge Law Journal, Nov., 2004, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Nov., 2004), pp. 685-711.
- Justice GP Singh, Principles of statutory interpretation, 14th ed,2016.
- Vepa P. Sarathi, Interpretation of Statutes, 5th ed, 2010.
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