Landmark Decision Decriminalizing Adultery: Joseph Shine v. Union of India


Joseph Shine v. Union of India is a landmark case in Indian jurisprudence that challenged the constitutionality of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalized adultery. The petitioner argued that the provision violated fundamental rights, including equality, non-discrimination, and the right to privacy, as enshrined in Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in its judgment, declared Section 497 unconstitutional, decriminalizing adultery and affirming individual autonomy, dignity, and the right to privacy. This case analysis explores the legal arguments, court observations, case laws, and implications of the decision.


Adultery, as defined under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, was long considered a criminal offence in India. Rooted in colonial-era laws, this provision reflected patriarchal norms and gender discrimination. However, societal values and constitutional principles have evolved over time, necessitating a re-examination of such laws. Joseph Shine, the petitioner in this case, challenged the constitutionality of Section 497, arguing that it violated fundamental rights and perpetuated gender stereotypes.


In December 2017, Joseph Shine, a non-resident Keralite, living in Italy, filed public interest litigation under Article 32 of the Constitution. The petition challenged the constitutionality of the offence of adultery under Section 497 of the IPC read with Section 198(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 which provided that no person other than the husband of a person accused of adultery would be deemed to be aggrieved by the commission of an offence under section 497 or Section 498 of the IPC.

Historical facets:

  1. Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized adultery, targeting men who had sexual relations with married women. The punishment was up to five years in prison. However, women were not prosecuted under this law, and it didn’t apply if a married man had an affair with an unmarried woman.
  1. Section 198(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) specified that only a husband could file a complaint for adultery under Sections 497 and 498 IPC.
  2. The Supreme Court reviewed previous cases that upheld Section 497: Yusuf Abdul Aziz v. State of Bombay (1954), Sowmithri Vishnu v. UOI (1985), and V. Revathi v. UOI (1988). These decisions had supported Section 497’s constitutionality.
  1. The case was initially heard by a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who referred it to a five-judge Constitution Bench. They noted that Section 497 treated the wife as a victim and lacked gender neutrality, as it punished the man but not the woman involved.
  1. On July 11, the government argued that weakening adultery laws would harm the sanctity of marriage. The five-judge Bench began hearings on August 1, 2018, and on September 27, 2018, they ruled to decriminalize adultery.
  1. On November 5, 2020, the government asked the Court to clarify how this ruling affected members of the Armed Forces, specifically regarding Section 69 of the Army Act, 1950, which punishes civil offenses, including adultery, by military personnel.
  1. On January 31, 2023, a five-judge Constitution Bench led by Justice K.M. Joseph stated that the 2018 judgment did not apply to the Armed Forces, meaning the laws governing military personnel remained unaffected.


  1. Whether Section 497 of the IPC read with Section 198 (2) of the CrPC violated Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India?
  2. Whether the provision for adultery is arbitrary and discriminatory under Article 14?
  3. Whether the laws for adultery be made gender neutral?

Legal Arguments:

The petitioner contended that Section 497 of the IPC was arbitrary and discriminatory, as it treated adultery as a criminal offence only when committed by a man with another man’s wife. The provision did not allow a woman to file a complaint against her husband for adultery, thereby denying her equal protection under the law. Moreover, the provision undermined a woman’s autonomy and dignity by treating her as the property of her husband.

The respondents, on the other hand, argued that adultery should remain a criminal offence to protect the sanctity of marriage and deter individuals from engaging in extramarital affairs. They contended that Section 497 was a form of affirmative action that favored women by protecting them from being punished as abettors.

Court Observations:

The Supreme Court, in its judgement, applied the test of manifest arbitrariness to evaluate the constitutionality of Section 497. It noted that the provision treated only the husband as an aggrieved person with the right to prosecute for adultery, while denying similar rights to the wife. This gender-based classification was arbitrary and discriminatory, violating Article 14 of the Constitution.

Furthermore, the Court observed that Section 497 perpetuated the stereotype of women as the property of men and undermined their sexual autonomy and dignity. By focusing on obtaining consent from the husband, the provision subordinated women and deprived them of their individuality. The Court held that criminalizing adultery was an intrusion into the private realm of individuals and was not aligned with modern societal values.

Case Laws:

The Court referenced previous judgements such as Yusuf Abdul Aziz v. State of Bombay, Sowmithri Vishnu v. Union of India, V. Revathi v. Union of India, and W. Kalyani v. State through Inspector of Police to contextualize the evolution of jurisprudence surrounding adultery laws in India. These cases upheld the constitutionality of Section 497, but the present judgement departed from their precedents.


The constitutionality of Section 497 was challenged because it violated Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution, arguing that a wife cannot be considered guilty as an accomplice.


A petition was filed under Article 32 challenging Section 497 of the IPC. The petition argued that this law is discriminatory because it does not allow a woman to prosecute the woman with whom her husband committed adultery.

  1. V. REVATHI v. UNION OF INDIA (1988) 2 SCC 72

The Court upheld Section 497, along with Section 198, stating that it is not discriminatory because it prevents both wife and husband from punishing each other for adultery. Instead, it punishes an outsider who tries to harm the sanctity of marriage.


The Court stated that because the appellant is a woman, she is completely immune to the charge of adultery and cannot be prosecuted for it.

Implications of the Decision:


  • The 42nd Law Commission report recommended the inclusion of adulterous women for liability for prosecution and reducing punishment from 5 years to 2 years which was not given any effect.
  • The 152nd Law Commission report recommended the introduction of equality between sexes in the provision for adultery. It also made the recommendation for reflecting the societal change with regards to status of woman. Similarly, this was unaccepted.
  • The Malimath Committee of 2003 on reforms of Criminal Justice System recommended the amendment of provision, “whosoever has sexual intercourse with a spouse of any other is guilty of adultery”. Similarly, it has yet not been considered.


Joseph Shine v. Union of India was a watershed moment in Indian legal history, marking the end of a colonial-era provision that perpetuated gender stereotypes and violated fundamental rights. The Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize adultery affirmed the principles of equality, autonomy, and privacy, setting a precedent for future cases involving personal liberties and societal norms. The problem of adultery frequently accours in big cities where western lifestyles are adopted. People are unbothered of the consequences. After the decriminalization of adultery, it is widespread. 

The decision in Joseph Shine v. Union of India had significant implications for Indian society and jurisprudence. By decriminalizing adultery, the Court affirmed the principles of individual autonomy, dignity, and privacy. It recognized that adultery, while morally wrong, should not be a matter for criminal law intervention. Instead, it should be addressed through civil remedies, such as divorce.


Q: What was the main contention of the petitioner in Joseph Shine v. Union of India?

A: The petitioner argued that Section 497 of the IPC was arbitrary, discriminatory, and violated fundamental rights, particularly those enshrined in Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution.

Q: What was the response of the respondents in the case?

A: The respondents argued that adultery should remain a criminal offence to protect the sanctity of marriage and deter individuals from engaging in extramarital affairs.

Q: What was the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case?

A: The decision decriminalized adultery in India and affirmed the principles of individual autonomy, equality, and the right to privacy. It marked a significant shift in the interpretation of adultery laws and their alignment with constitutional values.


Yusuf abdul aziz v. State of bombay (1954) SCR 930

Sowmithri vishnu v. Union of india & anr. (1985) SUPP SCC 137

V. revathi v. Union of india (1988) 2 SCC72

W. kalyani v. State through inspector of police and Anr. (2012) 1 SC358


Landmark Decision Decriminalizing Adultery: Joseph Shine v. Union of India

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