It’s time we strengthen family courts to bring speedy relief to women, suggests a study

Irrespective of educational qualifications, women have a tough time getting the law on their side. Anandhi and Annathai (names changed on request) have been running from pillar to post seeking divorce and compensation respectively.

“Though we have a good system, it has hazardous, long-drawn procedures, besides being toothless,” says Anandhi, an M.Phil scholar who is fighting a lone battle for three years.

Annathai, who studied up to plus-two, says, “Already we have lost life and hope. Even after getting the orders, I have not received anything for the past three years. How long I can fight? How many times I can avail myself of permission and leave? I have almost given it up.”

The cases of Anandhi and Annathai are not rare. There is a system in place to provide a happy and harassment-free life for both men and women.

“But,” says Bimla Chandrasekar, Director of EKTA resource centre for women, “often women become victims of the anti-women bias in society, which gets reflected in the attitudes of judges, court clerks or peons who often treat women litigants with contempt.”

Family Courts were established to promote conciliation and secure the speedy settlement of disputes relating to marriage and family affairs and for matters connected herewith.

“Women suffer immensely with the functioning of courts and face difficulties in getting legal relief,” she says. “Family Courts aim to sustain and retain the family institution with umpteen numbers of counselling sessions. If that is the intention, how women-friendly are the Family Courts?”

Conciliation, speedy settlement and removal of gender bias are the stated objectives in the legislation but in reality there is a gap which needs to be addressed by developing various fair mechanisms, systems and processes, including gender-sensitive civil society organisations.

The study of the Family Courts in Tamil Nadu not only covers the prevailing system but also makes various recommendations to overcome the existing obstacles and constraints in the court’s functioning.

Only effective enforcement of the Family Court Act and rules in Tamil Nadu and slight changes to the Act will lessen the plight of women. Then only will the Act serve its purpose, she says.

The study

A team from EKTA undertook the study of Family Courts in Tamil Nadu. Both men and women approach Family Courts. According to the statistics from 1998 to 2007, 50.5 per cent of petitioners were women and 49.5 per cent were men.

Statistics also show that the number of petitions and suits filed before the Family Court has increased consistently every year and almost doubled in 10 years. “In 1998 there were 739 cases and in 2007 it was 1592,” says Phavalam, coordinator and data analyser of the study.

“Similarly,” she says, “data clearly indicates that the bulk of Family Court litigations are matrimonial disputes. Out of 10,426 cases, only 1,553 cases are maintenance-related cases.”

The Family Court disposed of 604 cases in 1998 and 1,192 cases in 2003. But, Phavalam points out, the backlog of cases also increases at the same time, so justice is delayed.

Litigants belonging to the Hindu religion account for 78 per cent of cases, followed by Muslims and Christians with 15 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.

That proportion does not reflect the religious break-up of the city’s overall population, and Christian and Muslim women come to the Family Court expecting justice though they have mechanisms to settle disputes within their own religious institutions.

Maintenance cases under Sec 125 CrPC are applications made to the Family Court for maintenance under criminal law. Execution petitions are filed by women who are approaching the court again because the husbands did not comply with the order of maintenance in the first instance. Out of 783 women who filed cases seeking maintenance, 566 women were approaching the courts for the second time and maintenance was granted to 469 women.

“For these women, it is the second round of litigation,” Phavalam says. “This indicates that getting maintenance from their husbands to claim their legal rights is a great hardship for women.”

According to Phavalam, these procedures force women applicants to file petitions repeatedly, for example, execution and enhancement petitions. Warrants were issued against only 119 respondents for non-payment of maintenance and for not complying with maintenance orders.

Recommendations

The Government Order that recommends appointment of two full-time marriage counsellors for each Family Court should be implemented, according to the study. Similarly, basic infrastructure should be provided similar to the facilities provided in Chennai Family Courts. The courts should have sufficient space to accommodate counselling centre, space for children, waiting room, canteen and toilets.

“Family Courts should be set up in all districts and cases should be taken up irrespective of geographical jurisdiction,” says Phavalam. “Marriage held under Corporation limits can be fought in Family Courts, whereas others would deal with it in the civil courts.”

“Time limit for disposal of case should be specified. Besides, standardisation of formats and simplifications of procedures would help litigants to argue their cases,” she says.

Jeyalakshmi Sasikumar, a social activist, adds, “Orders are issued but compensation and maintenance is always a far-fetched dream for many. Laws are for people who have money. The expenditure for fighting the case is mostly high and unaffordable.”

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Safety firstJanuary 1, 2013