The Supreme Court in a judgment rendered on August 16th has observed that familial relationships may take the form of domestic, unmarried partnerships, or queer relationships.

The Court also held that such atypical manifestations of family unity are equally deserving not only protection under the law but also of the benefits available under the Maternity Benefit Act.

A two-judge Bench of Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice AS Bopanna were adjudicating upon an appeal filed against the judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court which had held that since the Appellant had availed of the child care leave in respect of the biological children of her spouse born from his first marriage, she would be disentitled to the grant of maternity leave.

In this case, the Appellant was working as a Nursing Officer in the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research at Chandigarh. The Appellant was married to one Amir Singh. The spouse of the Appellant was married before his marriage to the Appellant, but his former wife had died. From his first marriage, the Spouse had two children. The Appellant had also filed an application requesting the authorities at PGIMER to enter the names of the two children born from the first marriage of her spouse in the official service record.

Thereafter, the Appellant had her first biological child from her marriage. After which, she applied for maternity leave, in terms of Rule 43 of the Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules 1972. However, her request for maternity leave was rejected on the ground that she had two surviving children and had availed of child care leave earlier for the two children born from the first marriage of her spouse. Consequently, maternity leave for the child borne by her, considered as her third child, was found to be inadmissible in terms of the Rules of 1972.

Aggrieved, the Appellant approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) at Chandigarh Bench, however, CAT dismissed her application.

The Appellant then approached the High Court which dismissed her Petition on the ground that there is no perversity or illegality in the judgment of the CAT.

Aggrieved, the Appellant approached the Apex Court.

Counsel Akshay Verma appeared for the Appellant, while Counsel Sudarshan Rajan appeared for the second, third, and fourth Respondents before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court noted that Rule 43(1) provisions must be imbued with a purposive interpretation.

The Court placed reliance on KH Nazar v. Mathew K Jacob, where the Apex Court had noted that the beneficial legislation must be given a liberal approach.

The Court further referred to various provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act and noted, "These provisions have been made by Parliament to ensure that the absence of a woman away from the place of work occasioned by the delivery of a child does not hinder her entitlement to receive wages for that period or for that matter for the period during which she should be granted leave in order to look after her child after the birth takes place."

Furthermore, the Bench also held that the Act of 1961 was enacted to secure women's right to pregnancy and maternity leave and to afford women with as much flexibility as possible to live an autonomous life, both as a mother and as a worker, if they so desire.

The Court also held that the Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules 1972 were formulated to entrench and enhance the objects of Article 15 of the Constitution and other relevant constitutional rights and protections.

The Bench also asserted that the right to reproduction and child rearing has been recognized as an important facet of a person's right to privacy, dignity and bodily integrity under Article 21. Article 42 enjoins the State to make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

The Court while referring to the case observed that the fact that the Appellant's spouse had two biological children from his first marriage would not impinge upon the entitlement of the appellant to avail maternity leave for her sole biological child.

The Bench also observed that gendered roles assigned to women and societal expectations mean that women are always pressed upon to take a disproportionate burden of childcare work.

The Court thus held that the grant of child care leave to the Appellant could not be used to disentitle her to maternity leave under Rule 43 of the Rules of 1972.

"The grant of maternity leave under Rules of 1972 is intended to facilitate the continuance of women in the workplace. It is a harsh reality that but for such provisions, many women would be compelled by social circumstances to give up work on the birth of a child, if they are not granted leave and other facilitative measures. No employer can perceive child birth as detracting from the purpose of employment. Child birth has to be construed in the context of employment as a natural incident of life and hence, the provisions for maternity leave must be construed in that perspective," the Bench added.

The Court held, "The predominant understanding of the concept of a "family" both in the law and in society is that it consists of a single, unchanging unit with a mother and a father (who remain constant over time) and their children. This assumption ignores both, the many circumstances which may lead to a change in one‟s familial structure, and the fact that many families do not conform to this expectation to begin with. Familial relationships may take the form of domestic, unmarried partnerships or queer relationships. A household may be a single parent household for any number of reasons, including the death of a spouse, separation, or divorce. Similarly, the guardians and caretakers (whot raditionally occupy the roles of the "mother" and the "father") of children may change with remarriage, adoption, or fostering. These manifestations of love and of families may not be typical but they are as real as their traditional counterparts. Such atypical manifestations of the family unit are equally deserving not only of protection under law but also of the benefits available under social welfare legislation."'

In light of these observations, the Court thus held that the Appellant was entitled to the grant of maternity leave. Therefore, the Bench set aside the impugned judgment of the High Court and allowed the appeal.

The Court held that the benefits which are admissible to the Appellant shall be released to her.

Cause Title – Deepika Singh v. Central Administrative Tribunal & Others

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