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Role of Informal Justice Systems

Rights of Second Wives

The Bombay High Court's judgment that second wives can claim retirement benefits of the deceased husband is a step in the right direction. What role do informal justice systems, which focus on restorative justice, play in protecting the rights of second wives?

The Bombay High Court recently held that a second wife can claim retirement benefits of the deceased husband (Hindu 2016). The status of second wives in India has been precarious. In 2010, the Supreme Court of India had observed that a woman who married an already-married man was not entitled to maintenance and other protections (D Velusamy v D Patchaiammal 2011). Referring to the second wife in scathing feudal terms, including calling her “keep” and “mistress,” it not only refused legal status to second wives, but contributed to perpetuating the social stigma attached to being one.

The recent decision protects the interests of the second wife in limited circumstances—when the husband has divorced the first wife and taken steps that made explicit his intention to exclude her from monetary benefits, like cancelling her nomination towards his pension. It is apparent then that in order to secure benefits from a marriage, women—as second wives—have several hoops to jump through. Moreover, the state’s legal system adopts an all or nothing approach. Its focus on fact-finding and blame apportionment is unsuited to complex disputes (Meadow-Menkel 1996), like matrimonial matters, where remedies are not easily quantifiable. Furthermore, the goal of justice as healing all—the victim and the perpetrator (Consedine 1999)—is better served through informal means of restorative justice.

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