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Q. Define the term "Guardian" under Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act 1956. What are the powers and liabilities of a guardian? How and when can a testamentary guardian be removed?

In Hindu dharmashastras, not much has been said about guardianship. Due to the concept of joint families, a child without parents was usually cared for by the head of the joint family. Further, it was well accepted that the king is the guardian of all the orphans. Thus, no specific laws were required regarding guardianship. During British period, guardianship was primarily based on the extension of paternal authority. Thus, after parents, elder brothers,paternal uncles, and then maternal relations used to look after the interests of the minor. The British also introduced the concept of testamentary guardians in India.

The concept of guardianship has changed from paternal power to the idea of protection in modern times and the HMG Act 1956 codifies the laws regarding minority and guardianship with the welfare of the child at the core.

A person below the age of 18 yrs is considered to be a minor as per Section 4 of HMGA 1956. Such a person is not capable of taking care of himself or of handling his affairs and thus requires help, support, and most importantly, protection, which is usually provided by the parents. However, in many unfortunate cases, parents are not available and in those cases other relatives or persons come to the rescue. Thus, parents and other people who look after a minor are called as guardians in general parlance. Sec 4 of HMGA 1956 defines Guardian as follows:

Definition as per Section 4 of HMG 1956
Guardian means a person having the care of a person of a minor or of his property or of both the person and his property. This includes:
This list of 4 types of guardians is not exhaustive. A person who is taking care of a minor without authority of law, can also be a guardian under the above definition and is called a de facto guardian. De facto guardians include self appointed guardians and guardians by affinity, such as guardians for a minor widow. However, a person does not have right to sell or deal with minor's property if he is merely a de factor guardian as per section 11.

Natural Guardian (Sec 6)

Section 6 of HMG Act 1956 defines only three natural guardians:
It further states that no person shall be entitled to be a natural guardian of a minor if
Here, by father and mother, natural father and mother are meant. Step father or step mother do not have any right to guardianship unless appointed by court.

As per section 7, natural guardianship of an adopted son passes on to his adoptive father and after adoptive father, to adoptive mother.

Position of Father
Pre- 1956, the right of the father was supreme. He could even appoint a person to act as a guardian after his death even if the mother was alive. This is not the case now. Further, as held in the case of Lalita vs. Ganga AIR 1973 Raj., a fathers right to guardianship is subordinate to the welfare of the child. In the case of Githa Hariharan vs RBI AIR 1999 SC held the mother to be the natural guardian in spite of the father being alive and further held that the word "after" means "in the absence" rather than "after the life" of the father. Thus, if a father is incapable of protecting the interests of a minor due to any reason, he can be removed from guardianship.

Position of Mother
The mother is the natural guardian of her illegitimate minors. In case of legitimate minors, the mother has right to custody of a minor less than 5 yrs of age. This does not mean that mother does not have the right to custody after 5 yrs of age. In case of Sheela vs Soli, 1981 Bom HC, it was held that a mother's right to guardianship is not lost upon conversion to another religion if she is able to provide proper care to the minor. Further, in Kumar vs Chethana AIR 2004, SC has held that the mother's right to guardianship is not lost automatically after her remarriage.  In all such cases, welfare of the child has to be considered above all including the convenience and pleasure of the parents.

Position of Husband
In Hindu shastras, husband and wife are considered to be one. Thus, it is believed that the guardianship of a minor wife belongs to the husband. However, due to section 13, a court may revert the guardianship to the father or mother depending on the best interests of the minor.

Powers of a natural guardian (Sec 8)
Section 8 of HMGA 1956 describes the powers of a natural guardian as follows:
These powers also include the following
In the case of Manik Chandra vs Ram Chandra AIR 1981 SC has held that the meaning of "necessity" and "advantage" of a minor are quite wide and the courts have the power to widen their scope as per the case facts before giving the permission. As per section 12, no guardian can be appointed for the undivided interest in the joint property of the minor. However, the court may appoint a guardian for the complete joint family if required.

Custody of a minor
Custody of a minor is also subordinate to section 13, which declares the welfare of the child to be of paramount interest. Regarding a child, who is at the age of discretion, his wishes are also to be considered, though his wishes may be disregarded in his best interest.

That a mother is preferred to father for custody is not right. Better economic condition of the father than maternal grandfather is considered to be in favor of the father. In Kumar vs Chethana AIR 2004, SC has held that mother's remarriage is not a sufficient cause in itself to lose custody of a minor. It was further held that convenience of the parents is irrelevant.
To ensure the welfare of the child, the custody may even be given to the third person as was given to the mother and grand father by SC in case of Poonam vs Krishanlal AIR 1989.
In the case of Re Madhab Chandra Saha 1997, a father was never active in the interest a minor and after a long time demanded the guardianship. His claim was rejected.
In the case of Chakki vs Ayyapan 1989, a mother who says she will keep living with friends and may beget children from others, was not considered appropriate for custody in the minor's interest.

Power over minor's property
In general, a guardian may do all acts that are in the interest of the minor. A third party may deal safely with the guardian in this respect. However, this excludes fraudulent, speculative, and unnecessary deals. Before this act, a natural and testamentary guardian had the power to alienate the minor's property if it is necessary as determined by SC in Hanuman Prasad vs Babooee Mukharjee 1856. However, this rule has been restricted through sec 8, which mandates courts permission before alienating the minor's interest in the minor's property.  Also, a guardian does not have any right over the joint family interest of a minor.
In the case of Vishambhar vs Laxminarayana, 2001, SC has held that a sale of minor's immovable property without courts permission is voidable and not void ab-initio. It further held that Sec 60 of Limitations Act would be applicable when the minor repudiates the transaction.

In case, a minor repudiates an improper alienation made by the guardian, he is liable to return the consideration.

Liabilities of a guardian
If the minor, after attaining majority, discharges the guardian or reaches a settlement of account, the guardian's liability comes to an end.

Rights of a guardian
A guardian has a right to
Removal of a guardian
Court has the power to remove any guardian in accordance to section 13.
Testamentary Guardian (Sec 9)

A person who becomes a guardian due to the will of a natural guardian is called a testamentary guardian. Section 9 defines a testamentary guardian and his powers.

A testamentary guardian assumes all powers of a natural guardian subject to limitations described in this act and to the limitations contained in the will. A testamentary guardian is not liable personally for the expenses and he can ask the guardian of the property of the minor to meet the expenses through the property.
The rights of the guardian appointed by will cease upon the marriage of the girl.

Guardianship by Affinity
In Paras Nath vs State, Allahbad HC 1960, held that the father-in-law is the rightful guardian of a minor widow. However, this view has not been adopted by Nagpur HC.  Madras HC also did not hold this view and held that the welfare of the child is to be considered first before anything else.

De Facto Guardian
Section 11 says that a de facto guardian is not entitled to dispose or deal with the property of the minor merely on the ground of his being the de facto guardian. There is controversy regarding the status of a de facto guardian. Some HC consider that alienation by de facto guardian is void while alienation by de jure guardian is voidable (Ashwini Kr vs Fulkumari, Cal HC 1983), while some HC have held that both are voidable (Sriramulu' case 1949). It is now well settled that de facto guardian does not have the right to assume debt, or to gift a minor's property, or to make reference to arbitration.

Welfare of the minor is of paramount importance (Sec 13)
Thus, under this doctrine, any guardian may be removed depending on the circumstances on per case basis and the court may appoint a guardian as per the best interests of the minor.