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Understanding Cruelty – Grounds For Divorce In India

The expression “cruelty” has not been defined, however Section 13(1)(ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, provides:

13 Divorce — 
(1) Any marriage solemnised, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, may, on a petition presented by either the husband or the wife, be dissolved by a decree of divorce on the ground that the other party;
(ia) has, after the solemnisation of the marriage, treated the petitioner with cruelty;

Cruelty can be physical or mental

Cruelty, which is a ground for dissolution of marriage, may be defined as willful and unjustifiable conduct of such character as to cause danger to life, limb or health, bodily or mental, or as to give rise to a reasonable apprehension of such a danger. The question of mental cruelty has to be considered in the light of the norms of marital ties of the particular society to which the parties belong, their social values, status, and environment in which they live.

If from the conduct of the spouse, an inference can be legitimately drawn that the treatment of the spouse is such that it causes an apprehension in the mind of the other spouse, about his or her mental welfare, then this conduct amounts to cruelty. Cruelty may be physical or corporeal or may be mental. In physical cruelty, there can be tangible and direct evidence, but in the case of mental cruelty, there may not at the same time be direct evidence. In cases where there is no direct evidence, Courts are required to probe into the mental process and mental effects of incidents that are brought out in evidence. It is in this view that one has to consider the evidence in matrimonial disputes.

Cruelty may be mental or physical, intentional or unintentional. If it is physical, the Court will have no problem in determining it. It is a question of fact and degree. If it is mental, the problem presents difficulties. First, the inquiry must begin as to the nature of cruel treatment, second the impact of such treatment in the mind of the spouse, whether it caused reasonable apprehension that it would be harmful or injurious to live with the other.

Ultimately, it is a matter of inference to be drawn by taking into account the nature of the conduct and its effect on the complaining spouse. However, there may be a case where the conduct complained of itself is bad enough and per se unlawful or illegal. Then the impact or injurious effect on the other spouse need not be inquired into or considered. In such cases, the cruelty will be established if the conduct itself is proved or admitted.

Physical violence is not absolutely essential to constitute cruelty

To constitute cruelty, the conduct complained of should be “grave and weighty” so as to come to the conclusion that the petitioner spouse cannot be reasonably expected to live with the other spouse. It must be something more serious than “ordinary wear and tear of married life”. Physical violence is not absolutely essential to constitute cruelty, and that a consistent course of conduct inflicting immeasurable mental agony and torture may well constitute cruelty. Mental cruelty may consist of verbal abuses and insults by using filthy and abusive language leading to constant disturbance of mental peace of the other party.

Every matrimonial conduct, which may cause annoyance to the other, may not amount to cruelty. Mere trivial irritations, quarrels between spouses, which happen in day-to-day married life, may also not amount to cruelty. Cruelty in matrimonial life may be of unfounded variety, which can be subtle or brutal. It may be words, gestures or by mere silence, violent or non-violent.1

The concept of cruelty has varied from time to time, from place to place and from individual to individual in its application according to social status of the persons involved and their economic conditions and other matters. The question whether the act complained of was a cruel act is to be determined from the whole facts and the matrimonial relations between the parties. In this connection the culture, temperament and status in life and many other things are the factors which have to be considered. All these factors need be considered for judging the conduct complained of in relation to the fact as to whether it amounts to matrimonial offence of cruelty.2

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Now it would be sufficient to show that the conduct of one of the spouses is so abnormal and below the accepted norm that the other spouse could not reasonably be expected to put up with it. The conduct is no longer required to be so atrociously abominable which would cause a reasonable apprehension that it would be harmful or injurious to continue the cohabitation with the other spouse. Therefore to establish cruelty it is not necessary that physical violence should be used. However continued ill-treatment cessation of marital intercourse, studied neglect, indifference of one spouse to the other may lead to an inference of cruelty.3

Cruelty  is a mixed question of law and fact

What is cruel treatment is to a large extent a question of fact or a mixed question of law and fact and no dogmatic answer can be given to the variety of problems that arise before the Court in these kind of cases. The law has no standard by which to measure the nature and degree or cruel treatment that may satisfy the test. It may consist of a display of temperament, emotion or pervasion whereby one gives vent to his or her feelings, without intending to injure the other. It need not consist of direct action against the other but may by misconduct indirectly affecting the other spouse even though it is not aimed at that spouse.

It is necessary to weight all the incidents and quarrels between the parties keeping in view the impact of the personality and conduct of one spouse upon the mind of the other. Cruelty may be inferred from the facts and matrimonial relations of the parties and interaction in their daily life disclosed by the evidence and inference on the said point can only be drawn after all the facts have been taken into consideration. Where there is proof of a deliberate course of conduct on the part of one, intended to hurt and humiliate the other spouse, and such a conduct is persisted, cruelty can easily be inferred. Neither actual nor presumed intention to hurt the other spouse is a necessary element in cruelty.4

It is difficult to lay down a precise definition or to give exhaustive description of the circumstances, which would constitute cruelty. It must be of the type as to satisfy the conscience of the Court that the relationship between the parties had deteriorated to such extent due to the conduct of the other spouse that it would be impossible for them to live together without mental agony, torture or distress, to entitle the complaining spouse to secure divorce. Physical violence is not absolutely essential to constitute cruelty and a consistent course of conduct inflicting immeasurable mental agony and torture may well constitute cruelty. Mental cruelty may consist of verbal abuses and insults by using filthy and abusive language leading to constant disturbance of mental peace of the other party.

Treated with cruelty denotes a conscious action

The Court dealing with the petition for divorce on the ground of cruelty has to bear in mind that the problems before it are those of human beings and the psychological changes in a spouse’s conduct have to be borne in mind before disposing of the petition for divorce. However insignificant or trifling, such conduct may cause pain in the mind of another, but before the conduct can be called cruelty, it must touch a certain pitch of severity. It is for the Court to weigh the gravity. It has to be seen whether the conduct was such that no reasonable person would tolerate it. It has to be considered whether the complainant should be called upon to endure as a part of normal human life. Every matrimonial conduct, which may cause annoyance to the other, may not amount to cruelty. Mere trivial irritations, quarrels between spouses, which happen in day-to-day married life, may also not amount to cruelty. Cruelty in matrimonial life may be of unfounded variety, which can be subtle or brutal. It may be by words, gestures or by mere silence, violent or non-violent.5

The word “treated” as used in Section 13(1)(ia) denotes a conscious action and includes an omission which has to be cruel in order to call for a decree of divorce. Thus, a conscious act, cruel in nature is the requirement of the provision.6

  • Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for professional legal advice. This article does not create an attorney-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice.

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