Supreme Court on 22nd February,2021 comprising of a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and R Subhash Reddy ruled that when heirs of father of a female are included as persons who can possibly succeed under Hindu Succession Act, then it cannot be held that they are strangers and not the members of the family with respect to the female (Khushi Ram & ors vs Nawal Singh & ors).
The Bench ruled that as per Section 15(1)(d) of the Hindu Succession Act, the heirs of the father of a Hindu female are covered under persons entitled to intestate succession of property of a female Hindu.
“A perusal of Section 15(1)(d) indicates that heirs of the father are covered in the heirs, who could succeed. When heirs of father of a female are included as person who can possibly succeed, it cannot be held that they are strangers and not the members of the family qua (sic) the female,” the Court held.
One Badlu, was the tenure-holder of agricultural land. He had two sons Bali Ram and Sher Singh. Sher Singh died in the year 1953 issueless leaving his widow Jagno. After death of Sher Singh, his widow inherited share of her late husband, i.e., the half of the agricultural property owned by Badlu. Jagno’s brother’s sons filed a suit in 1991 claiming decree of declaration as owners in possession of the said agricultural land . They claimed that Jagno, who was sharer of the half share, had in a family settlement settled the land in their favour who were the brother’s sons. Taking note of the written statement in which Jagno admitted this claim, the Trial Court passed a consent decree. Later, the descendants of brother of husband of Smt. Jagno filed a suit claiming that this consent decree is illegal. This suit was dismissed and later the High Court dismissed the second appeal.
The heirs of the brothers of Jagno appealed to the Supreme Court. One of their contention was that Jagno, as a married woman, was not competent to enter into ‘family settlement’ with her own brothers’ heirs.
Issues before the court
(1) Whether the decree dated 19.08.1991 passed in Civil Suit No.317 of 1991 requires registration under Section 17 of the Indian Registration Act, 1908?; and
(2) Whether the defendant Nos.1 to 3 (Jagno’s brothers’ sons) were strangers to defendant No.4 (Jagno) so as to disable her to enter into any family arrangement with defendant Nos.1 to 3?
The appellant contended that no family settlement could have been entered by Jagno in favour of defendant Nos.1 to 3, they being strangers to the family. A Hindu widow cannot constitute a Joint Hindu Family with the descendants of her brother, i.e., her parental side. Family settlement can take place only between members, who have antecedent title or pre-existing right in the property proposed to be settled. Smt. Jagno could have transferred her absolute share in favour of the respondents or to any stranger only in accordance with law by complying with the provisions of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882, the Indian Registration Act, 1908 and the Indian Stamp Act, 7 1899.
On the hand the Respondents argued that the defendants being brother’s sons of Jagno, they were not strangers to Jagno and family settlement could have been very well entered by Jagno with them. Also, the expression “family” for the purpose of family settlement is not to be given any narrow meaning; it should be given a wide meaning to cover the members, who are by any means related.
The Court placed reliance on Section 15(1)(d) of the Hindu Succession Act to hold that heirs of father of a Hindu female are not strangers but are ‘family’.
The Court ruled, “In the present case, Smt. Jagno, who as a widow of Sher Singh, who had died in 1953, had succeeded to half share in the agricultural land and she was the absolute owner when she entered into settlement. We, thus, do not find any merit in the submission of learned counsel for the appellants that the defendants-respondents were strangers to the family.”
The bench while answering the second issuere ferred to Ram Charan Das Vs. Girjanandini Devi and Ors., 1965 (3) SCR 841, which discusses the concept of family with regard to which a family settlement could be entered. The court noted that every party taking benefit under a family settlement must be related to one another in some way and have a possible claim to the property or a claim or even a semblance of a claim.
The bench even referred to Kale and Ors. Vs. Deputy Director of Consolidation (1976) 3 SCC 119 in which it was held that term “family” has to be understood in a wider sense so as to include within its fold not only close relations or legal heirs but even those persons who may have some sort of antecedent title, a semblance of a claim or even if they have a spes successionis
The bench drew a corollary with the present case as well that the property in question was the same as to which the decree was passed and it would thus not be required to be registered under Section 17(2)(vi).