Geetha d/o Mundri v Arivananthan s/o Retnam [1992] 2 SLR 422; [1992] SGHC 340

Geetha d/o Mundri
v Arivananthan s/o Retnam
[1992] 2 SLR 422; [1992] SGHC 340

 
Information  
Suit No: Div 3356/1991
Decision Date: 26 Feb 1992
Court: High Court
Coram: K S Rajah JC
Counsel: Vijay Rai (Sukumar & Teo) for the petitioner, Respondent in person
Alternative Case Document: PDF
Reference Trace: Cases,
Legislation and References
Catchwords

Family Law – Marriage – Nullity – Lack of consent – Duress – Factors vitiating
consent – Arranged marriage of female minor – Abused by mother and elder
brother into consenting to marry respondent – ss 21, 35, 45(1), 91 &
99 Women’s Charter (Cap 353)

Case Summary

Facts

The petitioner Geetha was 20 years of age and lived with her parents who
accepted a proposal of marriage without consulting her. When the respondent
Ari came to the home, Geetha told her family that she did not like him
and that she did not want to get married. Her capacity to assert her will
was limited as she was dependent on her family. She went to the Registry
of Marriages with her parents to give the required notice of marriage.
Between 15 June 1991 and 26 June 1991, she was abused, insulted and scolded
by her mother and elder brother, and slapped by her elder brother when
she said she did not want to go through the solemnization of the marriage.
On 26 June 1991, the marriage was solemnized. When asked by the Registrar
of Marriages if she was willing to marry Ari, Geetha answered ‘Yes’
because of the presence of her father and other members of her family.
Her parents gave their consent as required in cases involving minors.
The parties lived separately after the solemnization as they agreed to
undergo the customary marriage under Hindu rites before living as man
and wife. Geetha never spoke freely to Ari during this time. On 22 October
1991, two days after she attained the age of 21, Geetha left her parents’
home, sought legal advice and made a police report that she was forced
into the marriage and that she was staying with friends. The petition
for nullity was filed on 16 December 1991 on the grounds that she did
not freely consent to the marriage and that she did not validly consented
to the marriage but was compelled to do so under duress.

Held, allowing the petition:

(1) The consent of third parties was required in all cases involving minors
to benefit of the minor. It assumed that a minor needed, as in other important
contracts, the protection of his parent, guardian or the law. As such,
it followed that it could not be given to the minor’s detriment
by well-meaning parents.

(2) Parents may invoke culture and tradition, oppose a choice of a partner
they thought unsuitable, persuade, influence and arrange marriages, but
the consent for marriage, even when parents gave their consent for the
marriage of a minor, must include the free consent of the person who was
marrying.

(3) Duress was a coercion of the will such as to vitiate consent. It must
be proved that the will of one of the parties was overborne by fears of
threats of force to life, limb or liberty. Here, Geetha persisted in telling
her family she did not like Ari and did not wish to proceed with the marriage.
When she said ‘Yes’ at the Registry of Marriages, she believed
herself to be in an inescapable dilemma in that she had to choose between
marriage and possible assaults and abuse. She feared being questioned
by the police if she left home while she was a minor.

(4) In this case, Geetha’s consent was given when there was coercion
of her will and fears of threats of force to her limbs and liberty. It
was a factor which vitiated her consent. The marriage was declared null
and void.

Case(s) referred to
Hirani v Hirani [1982] FLR 232 (refd)
Pao On & Ors v Lau Yiu Long & Ors [1980] AC 614 (refd)
Re SS (1980) FLC 90/820 (unreported) (distd)
Singh v
Kaur
(1981) FL Vol 11 152 (refd)
Singh v Singh [1971]
P 226 (refd)
Szechter (orse Karsov) v Szechter [1971] 2 WLR
170 (refd)

Legislation referred to
Interpretation Act (Cap 1) s 2
Women’s Charter (Cap 353) ss 21, 35, 45(1), 91, 99
Matrimonial Proceedings Rules 1981 r 33

Judgment

[Please note that this case has not been edited in accordance
with the current Singapore Law Reports house style.]

KS Rajah JC:

1 This is an undefended petition for a decree of nullity on the ground
that the petitioner had contracted the marriage under duress. The petitioner
was 20 years old, employed, earning a salary of about $500 and living
with her parents. A matchmaker came with a proposal. Her mother and
brother, without consulting her or obtaining her consent, accepted the
proposal.

2 The respondent came to her parents’ house to see her. She did
not like the respondent when she saw him and she said so to members
of her family. She did not want to get married in any case because she
wanted to save some money first. Her capacity to assert her will, however,
was limited because, according to her, she regarded herself as being
dependent on her family. She was very much alive to the fact that she
was below 21 years of age and had to live with her parents.

3 The petitioner, accompanied by her parents, subsequently went to the
Registry of Marriages to give the required notice of marriage for the
purpose of obtaining a marriage licence. The consent of both her parents
were required for the marriage, as she was below 21 years of age.

4 Between 15 June 1991 and 26 June 1991, the petitioner was abused,
insulted and scolded by her mother and elder brother. The pressure from
family members was intended to and did compel the petitioner to go through
with the solemnization of the marriage. On or around 24 June 1991, the
petitioner was slapped by her elder brother when she said that she did
not want to go through with the marriage before the Registrar of Marriages.
She was in no position to obtain legal advice and did not dare leave
her parents’ house as she was below 21 and depended on the family
home for a place to stay. She feared police reports may be made if she
left home.

5 On 26 June 1991 all the parties appeared before the Registrar of Marriages.
The marriage was solemnized by the Registrar. When the Registrar requested
the petitioner to declare whether she was willing to take the respondent
as her wedded husband, she said ‘Yes’. Her evidence is that
she had to say ‘Yes’ before the Registrar because of the
presence of her father and other members of her family. Her father was
a witness to the marriage ceremony and signed the marriage certificate.
The other witness was a relative of the respondent.

6 The parties did not live and cohabit together after the marriage was
solemnized as they had agreed to undergo the customary marriage under
Hindu rites before living together as man and wife.

7 The petitioner never spoke freely to the respondent after 26 June
1991. When the respondent rang up her home and asked to speak to her,
she would refuse to speak to him and her sister had to give excuses
on her behalf. After the solemnization of the marriage, the parties
not only lived apart, but the petitioner also refused to talk to the
respondent in the manner expected.

8 On 20 October 1991, the petitioner attained the age of 21. On 22 October
1991, she left her parents’ house and went to live with her friends.
She sought legal advice on 22 October 1991 and filed a police report
on the same day to ensure that police investigations did not proceed
if police reports were made against her.

9 The text of the report made at the Jurong Neighbourhood Police Post
is as follows:

I am 21 years old. I was forced to get registered to one Arivananthan,
m/22 years, on 26 June 1991 at Singapore Registry of Marriages. We had
not been to the Hindu customary marriage. I do not like the man, but
was forced to by my mother. Now I have left my home and staying at my
friend’s place at Block 264, Jurong East Street 21, #06-251.

10 The petitioner’s parents searched for her when she left home,
but left her alone after they were told that she had instituted legal
proceedings to nullify her marriage. Her mother, however, visited her
later when she was in hospital. On that occasion, her mother threatened
her.

11 The petitioner’s elder sister and the petitioner worked at
the same place. After leaving her home, the petitioner left her previous
job where she worked with her elder sister because her elder sister
gave her problems. The petition for the decree of nullity was filed
on 16 December 1991. The respondent filed his memorandum of appearance
on 16 January 1992, stating that he did not intend to answer the petition.

12 Counsel submitted that the petitioner did not freely consent to the
marriage and that therefore a decree of nullity should be ordered as
the petitioner had not validly consented to the marriage but was compelled
to do so out of duress. He relied on the English case of Hirani v Hirani.1

13 Marriages are important social institutions. Marriages should not
be lightly declared void or set aside. I was concerned over the danger
of opening the floodgates to applications for nullity on the ground
that consent was given under duress and over how the evidence could
be properly tested as it was a serious matter to be permitted to proceed
as an uncontested hearing.

14 I could have sought the intervention of the Attorney General under
s 91 of the Women’s Charter (Cap 353) (‘the Charter’).
The A-G, however, is empowered under r 33 of the Matrimonial Proceedings
Rules 1981 to show cause against making absolute a decree nisi, and
I proceeded to hear the petition.

Jurisdiction

15 The court has jurisdiction to entertain proceedings for nullity of
monogamous marriages. A monogamous marriage, as defined under the Charter,
means a marriage which is recognized by the law of the place where it
is contracted as a voluntary union of one man and one woman to the exclusion
of all others during the continuance of the marriage (see s 2 of the
Interpretation Act (Cap 1)).

Section 45(1) of the Charter requires the husband and wife, upon solemnization
of marriage, to be mutually bound to co-operate with each other in safeguarding
the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children.
Parties to a marriage can hardly be expected to co-operate and the union
described as voluntary if they do not fully consent to the marriage.

16 The court must give relief on principles which in the opinion of
the court are, as nearly as possible, conformable to the principles
on which the High Court of Justice in England acts and gives relief
in matrimonial proceedings, but subject to the provisions of the court.

Nullity proceedings

17 Any husband or wife may present a petition to the court praying for
a decree of nullity in respect of his or her marriage on the ground
that either party to the marriage did not validly consent to it in consequence
of duress. The court must not grant a decree of nullity on the ground
of duress if the respondent satisfies the court that the petitioner,
with the knowledge that it was open to her to have the marriage avoided,
conducted herself in relation to the respondent as to leave the respondent
reasonably to believe that she would not seek to avoid the marriage
and that it would be unjust to the respondent to grant the decree. The
court must also not grant a decree of nullity on the ground that the
petitioner did not validly consent to it if proceedings are instituted
after three years from the date of the marriage. The rule of law whereby
a decree of nullity may be refused by reason of approbation, ratification
or lack of sincerity on the part of the petitioner or on similar grounds
has now been replaced.

Consent

18 The notion of consent in the Charter has two aspects. The first is
the consent that is external and objective as of parents or other third
parties; the second is the consent that is subjective and internal of
the would-be spouses themselves.

Consent of third parties

19 A marriage licence must not be issued for the marriage of a minor
without the consent of both parents where both parents are living. Where
the consent of parents or of any other person is required by law and
cannot be obtained by reason of absence, inaccessibility or disability,
the Registrar or the Minister may dispense with the necessity for the
consent of that person. The High Court is also empowered to give consent
to the marriage. The consent, if given by the court, has the same effect
as if it had been given by the person whose consent cannot be obtained.

20 The consent of third parties is for the benefit of the minor. It
assumes that a minor needs, as in other important contracts, the protection
of his parent, guardian or the law (see Re SS2). It therefore follows
that it cannot be given to the detriment of the minor by well-meaning
parents.

Consent of the parties

21 The consent of the parties themselves at the time of the marriage
must be a consent freely given because s 99 of the Charter makes every
marriage that takes place void if it is not a valid marriage under s
21:

(1) Every marriage solemnized in Singapore shall be void unless it is
solemnized —
(a) on the authority of a valid marriage licence issued by the Registrar
or a valid special marriage licence
granted by the Minister; and
(b) by the Registrar or a person who has been granted a licence to solemnize
marriages.

(2) Every marriage shall be solemnized in the presence of at least two
credible witnesses.
(3) No marriage shall be solemnized unless the person solemnizing the
marriage is satisfied that both the parties to
the marriage freely consent to the marriage.

22 The Charter invokes the statutory approach to marriage, nullity and
dissolution. If a person uses any force or threat to compel a person
to marry against his will, an offence under s 35 of the Charter is committed.
It is against this background that the question as to what is meant
by duress vitiating consent for the purposes of declaring a marriage
void must be asked and answered.

23 In his judgment in Szechter (orse Karsov) v Szechter,3 Sir Jocelyn
Simon P said:

It is, in my view, insufficient to invalidate an otherwise good marriage
that a party has entered into it in order to escape from a disagreeable
situation, such as a penury or social degradation. In order for the
impediment of duress to vitiate an otherwise valid marriage, it must,
in my judgment, be proved that the will of one of the parties thereto
has been overborne by genuine and reasonably held fear caused by threat
of immediate danger (for which the party is not himself responsible),
to life, limb or liberty, so that the constraint destroys the reality
of consent to ordinary wedlock. I think that in the instant case that
test is satisfied.

24 In Singh v Singh,4 the parties were married according to Sikh custom.
The wife’s parents arranged her marriage. When she met him for
the first time at the register office for the civil ceremony of marriage,
she did not think the husband was educated or handsome as she had earlier
been told by her parents. She did not wish to go through with the civil
ceremony, but out of obedience to her parents’ wishes and in deference
to her religious faith, she went through with it. The parties separated
after the ceremony and it was arranged that a week later they would
go through a religious ceremony at a Sikh temple, after which they were
expected to consummate the marriage. The wife refused to attend the
religious ceremony or to have anything further to do with her husband.
She did not meet, see or communicate with him again. The wife’s
petition was not defended. On the hearing of the wife’s petition
for nullity on the ground of duress induced by parental coercion, the
court dismissed the petition for nullity and on the alternative ground
of incapacity to consummate the marriage.

25 The wife appealed. Karminski LJ, who heard the appeal, said [at pp
231–232]:

Here there is no suggestion of any danger to life, limb or liberty of
the wife. It is true that she obeyed the wishes of her parents, no doubt
having a proper respect for them and for the traditions of her people,
when she went through the ceremony of marriage. But it appears that
after the ceremony she changed her mind. For myself, I find nothing
in the facts of the instant case to establish, or even to indicate,
an absence of consent on the part of the wife at the time of the marriage.
… But she went through this ceremony of marriage, and I think
that she has completely failed to prove an absence of consent …
.

26 In Singh v Kaur,5 the Court of Appeal considered a case where the
husband petitioned for nullity on the ground that pressure put upon
him by the parents was so great that it in fact deprived his consent
to the marriage. The county court judge dismissed the petition. The
husband appealed. On appeal, Ormrod LJ stated that the decision of the
Court of Appeal in Szechter v Szechter,3 referred to earlier, was binding
on them and that the court had no option but to follow it.

27 Before I turn to the case on which counsel relied, I must refer to
the judgment in the Australian case of Re SS,2 where Watson SJ said:

In the present case the applicant was not threatened nor was she in
any danger. She was a victim of family loyalty and concern, below the
age of majority and on her evidence unable to initiate advice from outside
her family. She went on with the wedding not because of terror but because
of love, not because of physical threat to herself but because of concern
for her younger sister’s. She was caught in a psychological prison
of family loyalty, parental concern, sibling responsibility, religious
commitment and culture that demanded filial obedience. If she had ‘no
consenting will’ it was because these matters were operative —
not threats, violence, imprisonment or physical constraint. …

The emphasis on terror or fear in some of the judgments seems unnecessarily
limiting. A sense of mental oppression can be generated by causes other
than fear or terror. If there are circumstances which taken together
lead to the conclusion that because of oppression a particular person
has not exercised a voluntary consent to a marriage that consent is
vitiated by duress and is not a real consent. This is so howsoever the
oppression arises and irrespective of the motivation or propriety of
any person solely or partially responsible for the oppression.

… In duress the method of pressure is limited to threats but in marital
coercion it extends to any force overbearing the will. The two concepts,
duress and marital coercion, are treated as cognate.

28 In my opinion, the provisions of the Charter do not permit the construction
placed on the concept of duress by Watson SJ to be applied to the concept
of duress under the Charter.

29 In Pao On & Ors v Lau Yiu Long & Ors,6 one of the questions
before the Board was whether the guarantee was unenforceable, the consent
of the defendant having been induced by duress. Lord Scarman, giving
the opinion of the Privy Council, said [at p 635]:

Duress, whatever form it takes, is a coercion of the will so as to vitiate
consent. … There must be present some factor ‘which could
in law be regarded as a coercion of his will so as to vitiate his consent’.
… In determining whether there was a coercion of will such that
there was no true consent, it is material to inquire whether the person
alleged to have been coerced did or did not protest; whether, at the
time he was allegedly coerced into making the contract, he did or did
not have an alternative course open to him such as an adequate legal
remedy; whether he was independently advised; and whether after entering
the contract he took steps to avoid it. All these matters are, as was
recognized in Maskell v Horner [1915] 3 KB 106, relevant in determining
whether he acted voluntarily or not.

30 I must now turn to the case on which counsel relied.

31 In Hirani v Hirani,1 the petitioner was a young woman aged 19 who
had lived with her parents who were Hindus. She had formed an association
with a young Indian Muslim. To prevent the association continuing, the
parents arranged for her to marry a man whom neither she nor her parents
had previously met. The marriage took place but was not consummated,
and after six weeks, the petitioner left and petitioned for a decree
of nullity on the ground of duress exercised by her parents, upon whom
she was wholly dependent, but threatened to turn her out of the home
if she did not go through with the marriage. The judge found that there
was no duress as there had been no threat to life, limb or liberty,
and therefore refused to grant a decree. The petitioner appealed. On
appeal, Ormrod LJ followed the opinion of Lord Scarman given by the
Board in Pao On v Lau Yiu Long.6 There must be coercion of the will
sufficient to vitiate the consent given.

32 The marriage would, no doubt, have promoted, in the view of her parents,
the future happiness of the petitioner and it was on that basis the
parents brought pressure to bear upon her to proceed with the marriage.
Many Indian marriages are arranged and many of them live happily thereafter.
The fact, however, remains that the petitioner in this case persisted
in telling members of the family that she did not wish to proceed with
the marriage and that she did not like the respondent. The petitioner’s
reasons may not have been good. A brother’s concern for his sister’s
future happiness and a young girl’s normal apprehension may have
to be explained away forcefully, but using physical force on a sister
when she does not consent to the marriage is to compel and overlook
the petitioner’s right to choose whom she shall marry. Where a
tradition accepts arranged marriages and can demonstrate that eventually
most of the arranged marriages become successful, it can be seen as
disobedience not to obey the wishes of well-meaning parents and protective
brothers, but persuasion, not coercion, must be used.

33 When the petitioner stood before the Registrar of Marriages, she
believed herself to be in an inescapable dilemma. She had to choose
between marriage or possible assaults and abuse which would make it
impossible for her to live in the family home and work in peace at her
work place, or even leave her home. Her protests were either ignored
or rewarded with slaps. She regarded her age as being against her going
away to stay with friends. She feared questioning by the police. She
chose marriage. Soon after attaining the age of 21, the petitioner left
her home, made a police report and chose to live with her friends.

34 Parents may invoke culture and tradition, oppose a choice of a partner
they think unsuitable, persuade, influence and arrange marriages, but
the consent for marriage, even when parents give their consent for the
marriage of a minor, must include the free consent of the person who
is marrying.

35 Family loyalties, cultural and religious traditions, arranged marriages,
all have their place, and there is nothing in this judgment that seeks
to destroy or denigrate them. The consent given by the petitioner on
26 June 1991 was given when there was coercion of her will and fears
of threats of force to her limbs and liberty. It was a factor which
vitiated her consent.

36 I therefore found the marriage celebrated on 26 June 1991 void and
declared the marriage null and void.

Petition allowed.

Reported by P Arul Selvamalar

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