What is desertion in a matrimonial dispute?

Before the enactment, dissolution of a Hindu marriage particularly amongst what were called the regenerate classes was unknown to general Hindu law and was wholly inconsistent with the basic conception of a Hindu marriage as a sacrament, that is to say, a holy alliance for the performance of religious duties. According to the Shastras, marriage amongst the Hindus was the last of the ten sacraments enjoined by the Hindu religion for purification. [ Referring Bombay Hindu Divorce Act, XXII of 1947]Hence according to strict Hindu Law as given by the Samhitas and as developed by the commentators, a Hindu marriage could not be dissolved on any ground whatsoever, even on account of degradation in the hierarchy of castes or apostasy. But custom, particularly amongst the tribal and what used to be called the lower castes recognized divorce on rather easy terms. Such customs of divorce on easy terms have been in some instances held by the courts to be against public policy. The Act in S. 3 sets out the grounds of divorce. It is noticeable, that the Act does not recognise adultery simpliciter as one of the grounds of divorce, though cl. (f) renders the fact that a husband “has any other woman as a concubine” and that a wife “is a concubine of any other man or leads the life of a prostitute” a ground of divorce. In the present case we are immediately concerned with the provisions of S.3 cl. (d) which are in these terms:-

“3(1) A husband or wife may sue for divorce on any of the following grounds, namely-

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(d) that the defendant has deserted the plaintiff for a continuous period of four years”.

“Desertion” has been defined in section 2 (b) in these terms:-

“Desert” means to desert without reasonable cause and without the consent or against the will of the spouse”.

It will be seen that the definition is tautological and not very helpful and leads us to the Common Law of England where in spite of repeated legislation on the subject of matrimonial law, no attempt has been made to define “desertions”. Hence a large body of case law has developed round the legal significance of “desertion”. “Marriage” under the Act means “a marriage between Hindus whether contracted before or after the coming into operation of this Act”. “Husband” means a Hindu husband and “wife” means a Hindu wife.

9. In England until 1858 the only remedy for desertion was a suit for restitution of conjugal rights. But by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, desertion without cause for two years upwards was made a ground for a suit for judicial separation. It was not till 1937 that by the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1937, desertion without cause for a period of three years immediately preceding the institutions of proceedings was made a ground for divorce. The law has now been consolidated in the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1950 (14 Geo. VI, C. 25). It would thus appear that desertion as affording a cause of action for a suit for disso1ution of marriage is a recent growth even in England.

10. What is desertion? “Rayden on Divorce” which is a standard work on the subject at p.128 (6th Edn.) has summarised the case-law on the subject in these terms:-

“Desertion is the separation of one spouse from the other, with an intention on the part of the deserting spouse of bringing cohabitation permanently to an end without reasonable cause and without the consent of the other spouse; but the physical act of departure by one spouse does not necessarily make that spouse the deserting party”.

The legal position has been admirably summarised in paras 453 and 454 of Halsbury’s Laws of England (3rd Edn.), VoL 12, in the following words:-

“In its essence desertion means the intentional permanent forsaking and abondonment of one spouse by the other without that other’s consent and without reasonable cause. It is a total repudiation of the obligations of marriage. In view of the large variety of circumstances and of modes of life involved, the Court has discouraged attempts at defining desertion, there being no general principle applicable to all cases.

Desertion is not the withdrawal from a place but from the state of things, for what the law seeks to enforce is the recognition and discharge of the common obligations of the married state; the state of things may usually be termed, for short, ‘the home’. There can be desertion without previous cohabitation by the parties, or without the marriage having been consummated. The person who actually withdraws from cohabitation is not necessarily the deserting party. The fact that a husband makes an allowance to a wife whom he has abandoned is no answer to a charge of desertion.

The offence of desertion is a course of conduct which exists independently of its duration, but as a ground for divorce it must exist for a period of at least three years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition where the offence appears as a cross-charge, of the answer. Desertion as a ground of divorce differs from the statutory grounds of adultery and cruelty in that the offence founding the cause of action of desertion is not complete, but is inchoate, until the suit is constituted. Desertion is a continuing offence”.

Thus the quality of permanence is one of the essential elements which differentiates desertion from wilful separation. If a spouse abandons the other spouse in a state of temporary passion, for example anger or disgust, without intending permanently to cease cohabitation, it will not amount to desertion. For the offence of desertion, so far as the deserting spouse is concerned, two essential conditions must be there namely, (1) the factum of separation, and (2) the intention to bring cohabitation permanently to an end (animus deserendi). Similiarly two elements are essential so far as the deserted spouse is concerned:(1) the absence of consent, and (2) absence of conduct giving reasonable cause to the spouse leaving the matrimonial home to form the necessary intention aforesaid. The petitioner for divorce bears the burden of proving those elements in the two spouses respectively. Here a difference between the English law and the law as enacted by the Bombay Legislature may be pointed out. Whereas under the English law those essential conditions must continue throughout the course of the three years immediately preceding the institution of the suit for divorce, under the Act, the period is four years without specifying that it should immediately precede the commencement of proceedings for divorce. Whether the omission of the last clause has any practical result need not detain us, as it does not call for decision in the present case. Desertion is a matter of inference to be drawn from the facts and circumstances to each case. The inference may be drawn from certain facts which may not in another case be capable of leading to the same inference; that is to say, the facts have to be viewed as to the purpose which is revealed by those acts or by conduct and expression of intention, both anterior and subsequent to the actual acts of separation. If in fact, there has been a separation, the essential question always is whether that act could be attributable to an animus deserendi.The offence of desertion commences when the fact of separation and the animus deserendico- exist. But it is not necessary that they should commence at the same time. The de facto separation may have commenced without the necessary animus or it may be that the separation and the (animus deserendi) coincide in point of time; for example, when the separating spouse abandons the marital home with the intention, express or implied of bringing cohabitation permanently to a close. The law in England has prescribed a three years period and the Bombay Act prescribed a period of four years as a continuous period during which the two elements must subsist. Hence, if a deserting spouse takes advantage of the locus poenitentiae thus provided by law and decides to come back to the deserted spouse by a bona fide offer of resuming the matrimonial home with all the implications of marital life, before the statutory period is out or even after the lapse of that period, unless proceedings for divorce have been commenced, desertion comes to an end, and if the deserted spouse unreasonably refuses to offer, the latter may be in desertion and not the former. Hence it is necessary that during all the period that there has been a desertion, the deserted spouse must affirm the marriage and be ready and willing to resume married life on such conditions as may be reasonable. It is also well settled that in proceedings for divorce the plaintiff must prove the offence of desertion, like and other matrimonial offence, beyond all reasonable doubt. Hence, though corroboration is not required as an absolute rule of law the courts insist upon corroborative evidence, unless its absence is accounted for to the satisfaction of the court. In this connection the following observations of Lord Goddard CJ. in the case of Lawson vs. Lawson, 1955-1 All E R 341(A), may be referred to:-

“These cases are not cases in which corroboration is required as a matter of law. It is required as a matter of precaution…….” [ Bipin Chandra v. Prabhavati, (1956) SCR 838 ]

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