26 Mar 2010

Welfare of child paramount to determine custody: Supreme Court

In a decision rendered today, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the principle that the welfare of the child is the paramount factor to determine as to whom the custody of the child should be given. The Court was dealing with a custody battle where the mother wanted to take the child (Shivam) to Australia - where she was working - whereas the father, settled in India, contended that it is not in the interest of the child to leave India permanently. The two had already been divorced a year earlier. 

In this regard, taking note of the wishes of the child and considering his best interests, the Supreme Court affirmed the legal principle and allowed the custody to be retained by the mother in the following terms;

13. We have also talked with the child in our chambers in the absence of his parents. We found him to be quite intelligent and discerning. The child is in school and from the behaviour of the child, we could make out that he is well behaved and that he is receiving proper education.
14. The child categorically stated that he wants to stay with his mother. It appears to us that the child is about 8-10 years of age and is in a very formative and impressionable stage in his life. The welfare of the child is of paramount importance in matters relating to child custody and this Court has held that welfare of the child may have a primacy even over statutory provisions [See Mausami Moitra Ganguli vs. Jayant Ganguli – (2008) 7 SCC 673, para 19, page 678]. We have considered this matter in all its aspects. 
15. The argument of the learned counsel for the appellant, that in view of the provisions of Section 26 of the Act, the order of custody of the child and the visitation rights of the appellant cannot be changed as they are not reflected in the decree of mutual divorce, is far too hyper technical an objection to be considered seriously in a custody proceeding. A child is not a chattel nor is he/she an article of personal property to be shared in equal halves.
16. In a matter relating to custody of a child, this Court must remember that it is dealing with a very sensitive issue in considering the nature of care and affection that a child requires in the growing stages of his or her life. That is why custody orders are always considered interlocutory orders and by the nature of such proceedings custody orders cannot be made rigid and final. They are capable of being altered and moulded keeping in mind the needs of the child.
17. In Rosy Jacob vs. Jacob A Chakramakkal - [(1973) 1 SCC 840], a three judge Bench of this Court held that all orders relating to custody of minors were considered to be temporary orders. The learned judges made it clear that with the passage of time, the Court is entitled to modify the order in the interest of the minor child. The Court went to the extent of saying that even if orders are based on consent, those orders can also be varied if the welfare of the child so demands.
18. The aforesaid principle has again been followed in Dhanwanti Joshi vs. Madhav Unde - [(1998) 1 SCC 112]. 
19. Even though the aforesaid principles have been laid down in proceedings under the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890, these principles are equally applicable in dealing with the custody of a child under Section 26 of the Act since in both the situations two things are common; the first, being orders relating to custody of a growing child and secondly, the paramount consideration of the welfare of the child. Such considerations are never static nor can they be squeezed in a strait jacket. Therefore, each case has to be dealt with on the basis of its peculiar facts.
20. In this connection, the principles laid down by this Court in Gaurav Nagpal vs. Sumedha Nagpal reported in (2009) 1 SCC 42 are very pertinent. Those principles in paragraphs 42 and 43 are set out below:
“42. Section 26 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 provides for custody of children and declares that in any proceeding under the said Act, the court could make, from time to time, such interim orders as it might deem just and proper with respect to custody, maintenance and education of minor children, consistently with their wishes, wherever possible.
43. The principles in relation to the custody of a minor child are well settled. In determining the question as to who should be given custody of a minor child, the paramount consideration is the “welfare of the child” and not rights of the parents under a statute for the time being in force”.
21. That is why this Court has all along insisted on focussing the welfare of the child and accepted it to be the paramount consideration guiding the Court’s discretion in custody order. See Thrity Hoshie Dolikuka vs. Hoshiam Shavaksha Dolikuka - [AIR 1982 SC 1276], para 17.
22. In the factual and legal background considered above, the objections raised by the appellant do not hold much water. 
Have a look at the decision.

Post-Script Rejoinder

Subsequent to writing this post, we came across a later decision of the Supreme Court [Ashish Ranjan v. Anupama Tandon] wherein certain related and allied principles relating to custody of child were discussed. We are therefore exacting the relevant paragraphs of this decision as under;

15. In Rosy Jacob v. Jacob A. Chakramakkal, AIR 1973 SC 2090, this Court (Three-Judge Bench) considered the nature of custody of a minor under the provisions of Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 and application of doctrine of res-judicata/estoppel in respect of the same and held as under:
“The appellant’s argument based on estoppel and on the orders made by the court under the Indian Divorce Act with respect to the custody of the children did not appeal to us. All orders relating to the custody of the minor wards from their very nature must be considered to be temporary orders made in the existing circumstances. With the changed conditions and circumstances, including the passage of time, the Court is entitled to vary such orders if such variation is considered to be in the interest of the welfare of the wards. It is unnecessary to refer to some of the decided cases relating to estoppel based on consent decrees, cited at the bar. Orders relating to custody of wards even when based on consent are liable to be varied by the Court, if the welfare of the wards demands variation.”
16. The aforesaid judgment was re-considered by this Court (Two- Judge Bench) in Dhanwanti Joshi v. Madhav Unde, (1998) 1 SCC 112, and after quoting the ratio of the said judgment, held as under: 
“21……However, we may state that in respect of orders as to custody already passed in favour of the appellant the doctrine of res judicata applies and the Family Court in the present proceedings cannot re-examine the facts which were formerly adjudicated between the parties on the issue of custody or are deemed to have been adjudicated. There must be proof of substantial change in the circumstances presenting a new case before the court. It must be established that the previous arrangement was not conducive to the child’s welfare or that it has produced unsatisfactory results…..”
17. In Jai Prakash Khadria v. Shyam Sunder Agarwalla & Anr., AIR 2000 SC 2172; and Mausami Moitra Ganguli v. Jayant Ganguli, AIR 2008 SC 2262, this court held that it is always permissible for the wards to apply for the modification of the order of the court regarding the custody of the child at any stage if there is any change in the circumstances. (See also Vikram Vir Vohra v. Shalini Bhalla, (2010) 4 SCC 409) 
18. It is settled legal proposition that while determining the question as to which parent the care and control of a child should be given, the paramount consideration remains the welfare and interest of the child and not the rights of the parents under the statute. Such an issue is required to be determined in the background of the relevant facts and circumstances and each case has to be decided on its own facts as the application of doctrine of stare decisis remains irrelevant insofar as the factual aspects of the case are concerned. While considering the welfare of the child, the “moral and ethical welfare of the child must also weigh with the court as well as his physical well-being”. The child cannot be treated as a property or a commodity and, therefore, such issues have to be handled by the court with care and caution with love, affection and sentiments applying human touch to the problem. Though, the provisions of the special statutes which govern the rights of the parents or guardians may be taken into consideration, there is nothing which can stand in the way of the court exercising its parens patriae jurisdiction arising in such cases. (vide Gaurav Nagpal v. Sumedha Nagpal, AIR 209 SC 557).
19. Statutory provisions dealing with the custody of the child under any personal law cannot and must not supersede the paramount consideration as to what is conducive to the welfare of the minor. In fact, no statute on the subject, can ignore, eschew or obliterate the vital factor of the welfare of the minor. (vide Elizabeth Dinshaw v. Arvand M. Dinshaw, AIR 1987 SC 3; Chandrakala Menon v. Vipin Menon, (1993) 2 SCC 6; Nil Ratan Kundu & Anr. v. Abhijit Kundu, (2008) 9 SCC 413; Shilpa Aggarwal v. Aviral Mittal & Anr. (2010) 1 SCC 591; and Athar Hussain v. Syed Siraj Ahmed & Anr., (2010) 2 SCC 654).
20. In addition to the statutory provisions of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 the powers under Articles 129 and 142 of the Constitution are always available to this court to see that the order or undertaking which is violated by the contemnor is effectuated and the court has all powers to enforce the consent order passed by it and also issue further directions/orders to do complete justice between the parties. Mutual settlement reached between the parties cannot come in the way of the well established principles in respect of the custody of the child and, therefore, a subsequent application for custody of a minor cannot be thrown out at the threshold being not maintainable. It is a recurring cause because the right of visitation given to the applicant under the agreement is being consistently and continuously flouted. Thus, doctrine of res-judicata is not applicable in matters of child custody
21. If the instant case is considered in totality taking into consideration the above referred judgments, we are of the view that in the facts and circumstances of the case, inference can be drawn that the rights of visitation given to the applicant by this court vide order dated 3.5.2008 stood completely frustrated and the respondents have ensured that the applicant may not reach his son and all attempts made by the applicant in this regard stood futile. The mind of the child has been influenced to such an extent that he has no affection/respect for the applicant. In such a fact-situation, we do not hesitate in holding that the respondents have deliberately and willingly violated the terms of the consent order and are guilty of committing the contempt of this court.

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