New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that unmarried women in live-in relationships have a right to be suitably compensated by their partners in case of separation if the relationship satisfies certain conditions but also specified potentially controversial exceptions.

The judgement is significant because it acknowledges the changing social realities in India where relationships between couples can exist outside of the institution of marriage. It comes in the backdrop of an effort being undertaken by the government to enable less contentious divorces by bringing amendments to the existing law to include “irretrievable breakdown of marriage" as a reason for divorce.

Justice Markandey Katju, recognizing that such relationships are difficult to qualify, established the following conditions. Only couples who “hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses", who are of legal marriageable age, are unmarried and have voluntarily cohabited for a significant period of time will qualify. “Merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand," he clarified, “would not make it a domestic relationship."

The justice argued that not all live-in relationships amount to a relationship in the nature of marriage, and to get the benefit of compensation under the law the conditions laid out “must be proved by evidence".

However, the exceptions specified in the judge’s order elicited a strong response from women’s rights groups. According to the order, a woman classified as “keep" (a popular Indian colloquialism for a paramour) will not be entitled to compensation. “If a man has a keep whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant, it would not, in our opinion, be a relationship in the nature of marriage", the order stated.

Taking strong objection to this, Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women said such exclusions are unjust and ignore the fact that many such women are under the impression that their partners intend to marry them eventually.

“There should be some provision in the legal framework for such women," she says, adding that domestic servants are often involved in sexual relationships with their employers and have no support. Raja acknowledges that the judgement has a positive angle, but warns that without the offer of compensation some affected women have no recourse.