Kerala HC decision frowning on live-in relationships ignores Supreme Court ruling on the same

The Kerala High Court recently concluded that living together without contracting a marriage was ground to expel a female student. The High Court upheld the decision of the Management of Mar Thoma College of Science and Technology in Kollam to expel a female student – her only ‘crime’ being to have fallen in love with a classmate.

The Kerala HC ruled that an educational institute was right to expel a female student because she was in a live-in relationship. Image from IBN

Though the judgment makes repeated references to the ‘discipline’ of the education institution being affected, it is silent on how. It does however, refer to the girl’s ‘excellent academic record’. The Punjab and Haryana High Court too, while dealing with the question of live in relationships recently observed that ‘immorality cannot be perpetuated’ in the name of liberty.

It is puzzling that this is the direction in which High Courts are headed, particularly when the Supreme Court in a series of judgments has held that there is nothing illegal about live-in relationships. Right from the days of the Privy Council, the Courts have always leaned towards protecting such unions, even if they do not have legal sanction. There has always been a presumption that couples living-in together for long periods of time were presumed to be married, and a heavy burden lay on the party trying to dislodge that presumption to prove there was never a marriage at all.

The definitive pronouncement from the Supreme Court on the issue of live-in relationships came in 2010: the Supreme Court noticed that by enacting the Domestic Violence Act, Parliament had taken notice of a new phenomenon which has emerged in the country known as a live-in relationship. It went on to observe that a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ as described in the DV Act was akin to a common law marriage, requiring that a couple hold themselves out as spouses, and otherwise be qualified to marry.

The last bit may be of some significance if the Kerala decision is to be assailed; the boy whom the girl was living with was apparently not ‘of marriageable age’. Nevertheless, the fact remains that live-in relationships are not a totally alien notion in the country, having been recognised by both Parliament and the Courts. In fact, in a later judgment rendered in 2013, the Supreme Court has gone so far as to say: “Live-in or marriage like relationship is neither a crime nor a sin though socially unacceptable in this country.”

All in all, this new view would be a step backwards for Indian society. Should engaging in ‘socially unacceptable’ behaviour be a good ground for expulsion, even though this type of ‘socially unacceptable’ behaviour has been given legal recognition by the highest Court in the country? And if living in is neither a sin nor a crime, should anyone (least of all a bright young student with her entire future ahead of her) even have to suffer for it?

The writer is an advocate who practices in Bombay High Court