Filing false 498A Dowry Harassment cases will backfire

One of the biggest challenges of matrimonial law today is the criminalization of matrimonial disputes, as mentioned previously. Whether this is because of misguided advise received from lawyers or well-wishers or whether it's a manifestation of revenge coming from a vindictive spouse - the courts have been noting for a long time that it has become routine for spouses to file false dowry harassment, domestic violence and other like cases as soon as matrimonial discord enters the picture. The perversity of such litigation lies in that not only is it the spouse who is falsely accused of such offences (in most cases this is usually the husband), but his entire family is usually also dragged into it as well. I have seen cases where even the mentally-challenged brother of a husband was accused of dowry harassment!

To make things worse, the police handles these complaints abhorrently, usually landing up at the accused spouse's home or calling them to the thana, arresting them, as well as harassing and asking for bribes - often from both sides. Their incompetence in handling these matters inter alia earned them the ire of the Supreme Court which passed some strict guidelines earlier this year so as to get the police to act reasonably. In these cases, (expediently referred to as 498A cases) most of the damage is done in terms of mental and physical harassment as well as public humiliation all of which occurs much before the parties even see the inside of the courtroom. The falsely accused spouse and his family members may at best see themselves exonerated, but only after a long protracted trial that may extend several years. By then the errant spouse has already achieved what she/he desired (i.e. to use the criminal justice mechanism to harass the spouse so as to maximize the quantum of settlement) and as the proverb goes, justice delayed is very much justice denied.

The scourge of filing false cases is so rampant, that it has now long been a standard tool in the average ethically-challenged lawyer's tool-chest all across the country. All too often, litigants take such an audacious step simply in order to create pressure so as to leverage a large settlement amount. There are no two ways about it - this is plain extortion and not only is it wholly illegal, but completely unethical.

However, the irony in this matter (and what the unscrupulous adviser will rarely be aware of or tell you upfront) is that the filing of false cases itself is a boomerang that will come and hit the errant spouse back in her/his face. This is because through a plethora of judgements over the years, the Supreme Court has held that filing of false cases & complaints by one spouse against the other in itself constitutes mental cruelty which is a ground for the wrongly accused spouse to seek divorce. In fact, in the latest Judgement on this issue, K. Srinivas Vs. K. Sunita, passed on 19th November, 2014, the Supreme Court held that "It is now beyond cavil that if a false criminal complaint is preferred by either spouse it would invariably and indubitably constitute matrimonial cruelty, such as would entitle the other spouse to claim a divorce." The Supreme Court further elucidates that the filing of even one such case would constitute mental cruelty.

In my opinion, in order to solve this menace what is really needed now is for the courts to go one step further and make unscrupulous litigants who file false cases also face the heat of prosecution for committing the offence of perjury. As things stand, unfortunately, the rate of enforcement of punishment for the offence of perjury is abysmally minimal, to the point that it could be argued to be completely non-existent. There are however signs that the judiciary is looking at getting serious about punishing offenders who seek to abuse the process of justice. In a recent case in Mangalore, the Family Court held that the wife was liable to be prosecuted for perjury and defamation as she had filed a false case of dowry harassment and domestic violence when the husband did not accede to her extortionary demands for compensation. As the wife went absconding from the law, the court even issued a Non-Bailable Warrant against her for her arrest.

It is this kind of strict action that will bring an end to the menace of the abuse of dowry harassment and domestic violence laws, and we can hope that more and more courts start taking the offence of perjury seriously.