The Delhi High Court has held that an Advocate empanelled with DSLSA (Delhi State Legal Services Authority) is entitled to maternity benefits as per the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. It has said that a woman who chooses both career and motherhood should not be forced to make ‘either-or’ decision.

The Court was deciding a writ petition filed by a woman empanelled with DSLSA seeking directions to the respondent to grant all the consecutive maternity benefits to her which are applicable to regular female employees.

A Single Bench of Justice Chandra Dhari Singh observed, “Maternity benefits do not merely arise out of statutory right or contractual relationship between an employer and employee but are a fundamental and integral part of the identity and dignity of a woman who chooses to start a family and bear a child. The liberty to carry a child is a fundamental right that the Constitution of the Country grants its citizens under Article 21. … The work environment should be conducive enough for a woman to facilitate unimpaired decision making regarding personal and professional life and to ensure that a woman who chooses to have both, a career and motherhood, is not forced to make an ‘either-or’ decision.”

The Bench said that to stand in the way of exercise of such a right by a woman, without procedure or intervention of law, is not only violative of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution of India but also against the basic tenets of social justice.

Advocate Charu Wali Khanna appeared for the petitioner along with the petitioner-in-person and Advocate Sarfaraz Khan appeared for the respondent/DSLSA.

Factual Background -

The petitioner was appointed in the Juvenile Justice Board-I, Sewa Kutir, Kingsway Camp, New Delhi as a legal aid counsel on a daily fee basis, fixed at Rs. 1750/-, vide an appointment letter. During the period of her contractual employment, the petitioner conceived a child in April 2017 and hence, she applied for maternity leave of seven months through an application in October 2017. A letter was also served upon the Member Secretary by the petitioner regarding the application requesting the grant of maternity benefits to her.

Subsequently, an email was also sent to the DSLSA i.e., the respondent and the petitioner received a reply to her email addressed to DSLSA, stating therein that her request for maternity benefit had been declined since there was no provision for the grant of maternity benefits for Legal Services Authorities. The petitioner being aggrieved by the decision of the concerned authorities/respondent approached the court, having left with no alternate remedy.

The High Court in view of the facts and circumstances of the case noted, “For centuries, in the conventional concept of family, the men were assigned the role of gatherers and the women were assigned the role of bearers. It was only gradually that women of the family started to find their place in the society and stepped out of the four walls of their home. However, the liberty did not come easy to them. For decades, women had to fight their way towards equal treatment in services, whether skilled or unskilled.”

The Court said that it is extremely important to understand that equal treatment does not mean identical treatment and that there are certain inherent differences amongst the natural biological beings.

“A woman is bestowed the gift and blessing of motherhood. Hence, when a woman chooses to conceive and carry a child, she undergoes changes in her body that are beyond the biological aspects of a woman but also bring about a great deal of hormonal, emotional, psychological and other changes in her. To push a woman, undergoing such degree of dynamic changes while she is in the process of childbirth, to work at par with those who are not, at the same extent of labour, physical and/or mental, tantamount to grave injustice and is in no manner reasonable. This is certainly not the definition of equity and equality of opportunities that the framers of the Constitution had in their mind”, further noted the Court.

The Court also observed that to create a conducive environment is even more essential when a woman working is carrying a child to make sure that she is provided with an atmosphere that is positive and encouraging and, in such environment, the productivity of the woman is also bound to increase.

“… considering the indispensable need for maternity benefits for the welfare of the mother and her child, there is nothing to show that the claims raised on behalf of the petitioner regarding the grant of maternity benefits are invalid or extraneous. … There is no doubt that the case of the petitioner is covered under the definition of wages as provided under the Maternity Benefit Act”, held the Court.

Furthermore, the Court found no force in the argument on behalf of the respondent that the relationship between the parties was of a client and advocate and not that of an employer and employee as the petitioner was not being paid a professional fee, but was being paid remuneration for her services and was also required to work as per a specific fixed time scheduled.

“It is clear, upon considering the view that has been repeatedly taken, that the Maternity Benefit Act is a welfare and social legislation and the intent of the legislature in no manner could have been to limit or restrict the extent and scope of reliefs that may be granted to all those falling within the ambit of the Act. There is nothing in the language of the Act or in its provisions which suggests that a working expecting woman would be barred from getting the reliefs due to the sole reason of the nature of their employment”, said the Court.

The Court added that the respondent, admittedly extends benefits arising out of the Maternity Benefit Act to the permanent/regular employees attached with the respondent, however, has been denying such benefits to contractual employees, such as the petitioner.

“Medical science may have advanced over the years to facilitate the needs of the mother and child, however, the natural care that a newborn child requires cannot be dispensed away with and is also of utmost importance for the development and growth of the baby. The nature certainly does not discriminate on the basis of the nature of employment of a woman when it blesses her with a child. The miracle of childbirth and the process a woman goes through during such time must not be hampered by any extraneous events that may affect the health and well-being of the mother and cause her any degree of distress”, also observed the Court.

The Court said that a positive change of perspective is required along with a more adaptive approach in the matter of grant of maternity benefits. It further said that it is ironic that the petitioner being appointed with JJB, was hired to protect the interest and welfare of the children who may be suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system, however, was not able to secure the benefits that were necessary for the best interest and welfare of her own child.

“Even in this day and age, if a woman is made to choose between her familial life and a career progression, we would be failing as a society by not providing her the means to thrive, whether in professional life or in personal life. It is pertinent to note that the Act in place which grants the reliefs to an expecting or a new mother, considers such reliefs as a ‘Benefit’, when in fact the reliefs should come as a matter of right to the women employees who may be in that position. … A duty is cast upon the State and all those who are subjects of the Act to uphold the integrity, the objective and the provisions of the legislation in its letter and spirit”, concluded the Court.

Accordingly, the High Court allowed the petition and directed the respondent to release all the maternity benefits in favour of the petitioner within three months.

Cause Title- Annwesha Deb v. Delhi State Legal Services Authority (Neutral Citation: 2023:DHC:6049)

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