Krishna Murthy, 72, wants a divorce. His reasons - none in particular. His wife Lakshmi Murthy, 68, sits next to him, listening impassively to her adamant husband's arguments.
"Why after so many years of marriage? What are you missing? You have a happy family, grandchildren, a successful career behind you and more than adequate income. Why now?" the counsellor asks him. "There is no particular reason. I have nothing against my wife, I just want a divorce," Murthy reiterates. "He's probably having an affair," is all that Lakshmi has to say.
The counsellor, talking to the couple as part of a family adalat (court), a two-day event held in November 2005, organized by an NGO and supported by the National Commission for Women, is baffled and does not know how to proceed. "Are you ready to pay maintenance?" is all that she manages to ask. "Of course!" is Murthy's succinct reply. "This case has to be referred back to the judge," the counsellor mumbles.
There is a sizeable crowd watching curiously, lounging in chairs under a tent just outside the Family Court room on the premises of the Secunderabad Civil Court in Andhra Pradesh. NGOs and legal aid centers - backed by a government department or commission - are allowed to hold family adalats every once in a way. This is meant to reduce the burden on regular courts, but lawyers are skeptic about whether judges take these courts seriously. Some even say that the judges just "indulge the NGOs, and believe they still have to handle the cases from scratch". The adalat has no authority to give out a decision. It only handles only the counselling.
"The adalat is a supportive event, hence the spectators. Family Court proceedings are usually in-camera," says B Vijetha Raju, a senior lawyer dealing with marital discord cases for many years now. "But it is a fact that we come across many peculiar cases, like Krishna Murthy's."
Family Courts in Andhra Pradesh have emerged as dynamic institutions, facilitating speedy disposal of civil cases and quick maintenance settlements. Hyderabad has three Family Courts, and there are about 15 more courts in the state's 23 districts. The courts, set up under the Family Courts Act of 1984, are intended to make an "endeavor to assist and persuade the parties to arrive at a settlement". It grants exclusive jurisdiction to the Family Courts and they are deemed to be Civil Courts in their powers.
The Act prescribes representation by the parties themselves but permits a lawyer to appear as amicus curiae (a non-party called upon to volunteer information on some matter before the court). "The procedure is much simpler, conciliation quicker and procedures like evidence and cross-examination are not taken to the court. This saves the court's time significantly," explains Jayasree Sarathy, senior counsel. "Unlike the earlier system, interim maintenance is also granted quickly."
In spite of the fact that the courts are deemed a definite improvement on subordinate courts in settling cases quickly, lawyers working in Family Courts have several complaints.
"The crux of the problem is that the Family Courts Act is not implemented either in letter or spirit," says Sarathy. "There are many provisions in the Act that distinguish Family Courts from other courts, and their non-implementation renders the entire concept redundant."
To start with, there are not enough of these courts. "We need at least four Family Courts in Hyderabad alone. We have three, and one of them is a joint court for bomb blast cases and marital discords. Some combination that is!" Sarathy exclaims. "And, interestingly, the judge confesses that he prefers the bomb blast trials to divorce cases," Raju laughs.
The Act stipulates that there be one court for every 10 lakh people, with at least one in each district headquarters. "The shortage of courts burdens the existing ones. At present, each court takes up about 75 cases every day. That's a big number and forces several adjournments."
"I have a problem with the fact that the provisions of the Act, which stipulate the appointment of women judges and involving social welfare organizations are ignored," complains Yamini Reddy, another advocate working in the courts. Section 5 of the Act states that "institutions or organisations engaged in social welfare or the representatives thereof; persons professionally engaged in promoting the welfare of the family..." may be appointed. And Section 6 states that counsellors should be appointed to assist in reconciliation. "Neither of these sections is implemented, thus reducing the bench to one judge," Raju says.
Another problem area is the appointment of advocates. In practice - in spite of Section 13, which bars legal representation - advocates who camp at the court wheedle unsuspecting clients to hand the cases over to them. "We have known instances where the lawyers even demanded Rs 50,000 to handle the case," says Reddy. "And even clients prefer to have a lawyer represent them, because there is just a judge and no counsellors. They are scared of all the legalese," Raju adds.
There are also allegations that the judges resort to arbitrary judgements. Sunitha (who wishes to use only her first name) lost the case to her husband, who sought divorce on grounds of "cruelty since his wife was not cooperative in the physical act". She says she was devastated by "the casual, callous attitude of the judge". Sunitha, who suffers from severe tremors in her hands due to a nervous disorder, was deemed unfit by her husband for a physical relationship. "The judge used my affidavit against me, where I mentioned that my husband forced me to drink alcohol as he believed it would reduce the tremors. He took that as a statement of fact and, based on a receipt from a chemist, he granted divorce."
"The judge declared Sunitha 'medically unfit for sexual intercourse' based on a chit of paper, without even asking for a medical expert to verify the allegations. And the honorable judge includes in his verdict four explicit paragraphs on what makes for good love-making," Raju fumes.
The spacious grounds of the Civil Court, with large trees sheltering hundreds of clients, bustle with activity. And apprehensions about its effectiveness notwithstanding, the Secunderabad Family Court wears a homely look with none of the rancor that laces the divorce case proceedings there.
Lawyers, meanwhile, are unanimous in their opinion that, while the institution of Family Courts has several inherent strengths, its implementation is far from satisfactory. No sensible judgements, no sensitivity and no re-orientation from the old courts, not even basic infrastructure and amenities like ladies' toilets on court premises - are all part of their litany of complaints.