Chikham Amiraju and Ors V Chikham Sesamma and Another 1917 41 MAD. 33
The husband, Swami, the defendant, held out the threat of committing suicide to his wife Sesamma and son, the 1st and 2nd plaintiff, if they did not execute a release deed in favor of the husband’s younger brother Ammiraju and father Doraiyya.
The plaintiffs pleaded that the threat amounts to coercion and therefore the deed should be voidable.
The lower court found that the threat was indeed made and acted as ‘coercion’ under section of 15 of Indian contracts act, 1872 and deed was not executed with free will thus, voidable. The threat even though not made by the defendants themselves but their brother, negatived the free consent.
The defendants appealed before the judicature of Madras High Court.
Whether the facts relied upon by the lower court constitutes coercion or undue influence in law and whether the same comes under the ‘prejudice’ in the IPC, 1860?
Interpretation of definition of coercion in section 15 and undue influence in section 16 of the Indian contract act, 1872 and the act forbidden and prejudice caused under Indian Penal Code.
Judgement (Justice Sadasiva Aiyar)
The majority view held that the threat to commit suicide comes within the meaning of section 15 of the Indian contracts act, 1872 and the release deed becomes voidable in nature at the option of the respondents. The threat to commit suicide is considered an act forbidden by the Indian penal code, 1860 and when a person threatens to kill oneself, he is acting in his own prejudice and also in his family’s prejudice. Thus, the requirements of section 15 are fulfilled and the discharged action thus becomes voidable. However, Justice Oldfield dissented from the majority and said the attempt to suicide in IPC is different from an act of suicide. The appeal was dismissed with all costs.
The rationale behind the judgment is based on the definition of ‘coercion’ and the ‘acts forbidden by the Indian penal code’. The majority judgment states that the facts of the case do bring it under the meaning of section 15 of the contracts act even though the case may lie outside the purview of section 16 and the threat to commit suicide is indistinguishable from one’s attempt to do so and such attempt is forbidden by section 309 of IPC when the word ‘attempt is used in legal meaning throughout.
The second point of contention which referred ‘to the prejudice of any person, whatever’ covers the threat to a wife to kill her husband or to a son to kill his father and the threat here which was by the husband and father to kill himself must be taken as an act to his own prejudice and to his wife as she would bear the disabilities of being a Hindu widow, therefore the section 15 is satisfied and the appeal should be dismissed under section 36 of the letters patent with all costs.
The judgment was considered very significant in widening the ambit of section 15 of the Indian contracts act, 1872 and gave a new interpretation to the ‘coercion’. It helped in understanding importance of free consent and how indirect coercion affects it. After this judgment the Law Commission of India also recommended amendments in section 15 to curb the loopholes and include those acts which are penalized by the IPC also in the ambit of coercion. The case was later cited in Sardarni raminder sarup singh vs. govinder singh, 2010 HC and karrupayyi Ammal vs. karuppiah pillai and anr. (1986) 2 MLJ 138 in relation to the deeds executed where free consent was vitiated.