Last month, the judgements made by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in four cases pertaining to live-in relationships made headlines.

In all four cases, the petitioners were seeking protection for their lives against the threat of imminent attack from their family members.

In the four judgements that came in the span of a few weeks, the court kept shifting its stance on the legal and moral acceptance of live-in relationships.

On May 12, the court rejected a plea stating that such protection would disturb the “entire social fabric of the society”.

Building on this, in the second case on May 17 the court said “the petitioners in the garb of filing the present petition are seeking seal of approval on their live-in-relationship, which is morally and socially not acceptable and no protection order in the petition can be passed.”

The court took a sharp u-turn in its next verdict. In the third case, heard on May 20 it observed that live-in relationships are not prohibited nor do they amount to an offence.

“(These) persons are entitled to equal protection of laws as any other citizen of the country,” the third judgement read.

This decision of the High Court opposed the state counsel’s submission which had maintained that “live-in-relationships are not legal and are frowned upon by society.”

In a fourth case, on June 6, the court observed that such relations are not illegal. It also clearly stated that a plea for protection does not amount to rejection if the petitioners have committed no crime.

On the same date, the Supreme Court also came to the protection of the couple whose plea had been rejected by the Punjab and Haryana High Court earlier on May 17.

It stated that protection must be provided, “uninfluenced by the observations of the High Court.”

While there is no legislation in India that specifically discusses live-in relationships, the nature, characteristics, and authenticity of these relationships have been discussed in other laws in the past.

Certain laws presume live-in relationships to be of the nature of marriage. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 protects women in cases of violence where they are in a domestic relationship, including live-in relationships.

Similarly, the Criminal Procedure Code grants a woman in a live-in relationship the status of wife, and considers a child born of such a relation as legal.

And the Evidence Act of 1872 states that when two people have stayed together for a period of time, they will be presumed married unless proven otherwise.

Another approach that has seen some success in safeguarding live-in relationships is to use Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right to life and personal liberty.

In the verdicts cited above, where protection was extended to the live-in couples a flexible reading of Article 21 has been instrumental.

Yet the series of contradictory judgments made by different courts in cases concerning the same subject reflect the moral ambiguity surrounding live-in relationships in India.

If in 2018, the Supreme Court while revoking Section 377 could introduce the doctrine of progressive realisation of rights to keep up with the modern evolution of society, why can’t the same be applied in the case of live-in relationships?

It would not only establish their legal validity, but accelerate the acceptance of such relationships in society.

All the cases discussed above involve couples not from metropolitan cities, but from the small cities of northern India, reflecting the degree to which this way of life has been internalised by society.

The verdicts denying protection to live-in couples reflected the view of how live-in relationships pose a “threat” to society and defy established norms of kinship.

Even decisions to provide protection to the couples did not exceed the scope of criminality and immorality.

Before the aforementioned four cases, another petition was brought in March 2021 in the same court, seeking its help to protect the life and liberty of a couple.

The only difference was that the two people, who were in a live-in relationship, had also entered a contractual deed for the legal recognition of their relationship.

However, the court declared their deed as void, stating that it was not a marital relationship.

The court’s task here was to facilitate the smooth proceeding of a legally recognised relationship. Instead, it ended up questioning its legal and moral standing.

These cases only highlight the extreme situations that arise when live-in relationships are opposed by the couple’s families.

If violence is not perpetrated, there are still subtle ways in which these couples are discriminated against.

Renting a house is a major hurdle, with no law yet in place to hold the owner accountable if they reject prospective renters for being in a live-in relationship.

Discrimination against live-in couples is a matter of social injustice and it has implications for their social, economic as well as political status.

Clarity in our laws, to safeguard the rights of these couples, is long overdue.

Akansha Singh is an assistant professor of English at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad