Development of Judiciary in British India – UPSC Notes

The Judicial System in India is a single integrated system with the Supreme Court of India as its apex court. In a Parliamentary democracy, there are three organs of government: Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary. The function of the legislature is to enact law while the executive implements that law. On the other hand, the judiciary performs the function of check and balance. Judiciary sees whether the law had been enacted or implemented as per the Constitutional provisions.

From the ancient to medieval period, the judicial system in India, as a whole, neither adopted proper procedure nor had the proper distribution of the law courts in proportion to the area served by them. During ancient times, the concept of justice was linked with religion. The litigation process among the Hindus was supervised by the caste elder or village panchayats, whereas for Muslims, Qazi served as the unit of judicial administration.

The development of the modern judiciary in India goes back to the establishment of British rule in India. The beginning of India’s modern judiciary based on recorded judicial precedents with a common law system can be traced to the establishment of the Mayor’s Court. In 1726, Mayor’s Courts were established in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta by the British East India Company.

Reforms under Warren Hasting (1772-1785)

In 1772, Warren Hasting established two courts: Diwani Adalats to resolve civil disputes and Fauzdari Adalats to resolve criminal disputes.

Diwani Adalats: These Adalats were established in districts to resolve civil disputes and placed under the Collector. In these courts, the Hindu law was applicable to Hindus, whereas Muslim law was for Muslims. The appeal from the District Diwani Adalats lay to the Sadar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta, which was the highest court of appeal for civil matters, consisting of the governor-general and two members of his council.

Fauzdari Adalats: These Adalats were set up to resolve criminal disputes and placed under an Indian officer assisted by Qazis and Muftis. The entire functioning of these courts was under the supervision of the collector. The Fauzdari Adalats administered the Muslim law. However, the approval for capital punishment and acquisition of property lay to the Sadar Nizamat Adalat, which was the highest court of appeal for criminal matters, headed by Deputy Nizam (an Indian Muslim) and assisted by Cheif Qazi and Cheif Mufti. Sardar Nizamat Adalat was set up at Calcutta in 1772 and then shifted to Murshidabad in 1775.

Under the Regulating Act of 1773, the Supreme court was founded at Fort William in Calcutta in 1774, consisting of one Chief Justice and three other regular judges (Puisne Judges). Sir Elijah Imphey was appointed as the first Chief Justice of this Supreme Court. It was the supreme judiciary over all British subjects and had original as well as appellate jurisdictions.

Reforms under Cornwallis (1786-1793)

In 1786, Lord Cornwallis succeeded Warren Hasting as the Governor-General. He introduced reforms in the Judicial System in 1787, 1790, and 1793. These reforms were known as the Judicial Plan of 1787, 1790, and 1793.

Judicial Plan of 1787

The Judicial Plan of 1787 combined the revenue and judicial administration and put it under a single authority, namely Collector. The Collector, an English Servant, was vested with the power to collect the revenue and decide the cases arising from revenue disputes. The number of districts in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was reduced from 36 to 23 for reorganizing the revenue administration.

Lord Cornwallis established Mal Adalats in each district. These were the revenue courts that exclusively dealt with revenue matters. The court was presided by the Collector as he was in charge of revenue matters. The appeal from these revenue courts first lay to the Board of Revenue in Calcutta and then the Governor-General-in-council.

The Collector also presided over the District Diwani Adalats to deal with the civil disputes. A new office of the Registrar, also known as the Registrar court, was created as a subordinate office to the Collector to decide the petty civil cases. However, the order passed by the Registrar was not final until signed by the Collector.

Judicial Plan of 1790

In 1790, Lord Cornwallis made changes in the administration of criminal justice. He reorganized the districts into four divisions- Calcutta, Dacca, Murshidabad, and Patna.

The District Fauzdari Courts were abolished and replaced with the Circuit Courts. The Circuit courts were set up at Calcutta, Murshidabad, Dacca, and Patna and functioned under European judges. These courts act as the court of appeal for both civil and criminal matters. Sadar Nizamat Adalat, the highest court of Criminal appeal, was shifted to Calcutta and placed under the supervision of the Governor-General and members of his council.

Judicial Plan of 1793

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis further introduced reforms in the judicial system. Mal Adalats, which exclusively dealt with revenue disputes and presided by the Collector as judges, were now abolished. All pending suits and powers of these revenue courts were transferred to the District Diwani Adalats.

Cornwallis Code of 1793 laid out the separation of revenue and judicial administration. Now, the Collector was only responsible for the revenue administration with no judicial functions. The District Diwani Adalat was now designated as the District, City, or Zilla Court. The office of the District Judge was established to preside over the District courts to carry out magisterial functions. Thus, a gradation of civil courts was established for both Hindu and Muslim laws, as follows:

  • Munsiff’s Court under the Indian officers.
  • Registrar’s Court under European Judge.
  • District Court under the District Judge.
  • Four Circuit Courts as the provincial courts of appeal.
  • Sadar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta.

Reforms under William Bentinck (1828-1833)

During the tenure of Governor-General Willian Bentinck, the four Circuit Courts were abolished. Their functions transferred to the Collector under the supervision of the commissioner of revenue and circuit.

William Bentinck set up Sadar Diwani Adalat and Sadar Nizamat Adalat at Allahabad for the convenience of the people of the upper provinces. Earlier, Persian was the official language of the courts. But now, there was the option to use Persian or Vernacular languages for the court proceedings. English was made an official language of the Supreme Court proceedings.

Charter Act of 1833

Under the Charter Act of 1833, the Indian Law Commission was set up under the chairmanship of Lord Macaulay for the codification of Indian laws. Based on the law commission, the Code of Civil Procedure (1859), the Indian Penal Code (1860), and the Criminal Procedure Code (1862) were prepared.

Establishment of High Courts

During the period from 1834 to 1861, the two sets of courts were administering justice in India. The Supreme Court and Sadar Adalats form a dual system of courts having their separate jurisdiction. After the Code of Civil Procedure, the Indian Penal Code, and the Criminal Procedure Code passed in the year 1859, 1860, and 1861 respectively, the next step taken by the British government was to implement uniformity in the administration of justice, which got achieved in the year 1861.

Indian High Court Act of 1861

In August 1861, the British government passed the Indian High Court Act of 1861. The Act established three High Courts in the presidencies of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. The objective of this act was to unite the Sadar Adalats and the Supreme Court in the three presidencies. Therefore, the Act abolished the Supreme Court and Sadar Adalats at Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras and replaced them with a High Court in each of these presidencies. Each of the High Court consists of a Chief Justice and up to 15 regular judges.

The Charter of High Court of Calcutta was issued in May 1862, whereas that of Bombay and Madras High Courts was issued in June 1862. Therefore, Calcutta High Court became the first High Court in the country.

As the Indian High Court Act of 1861 authorized the Crown to create any other High Court within British India, the High Court for the North-Western province was set up in Agra in March 1866, replacing the Sadar Adalat. In 1869, this High Court shifted to Allahabad. Thus, Allahabad High Court became the first provincial High Court of the country.

Later on, more High Courts were established. In February 1916, Patna High Court was set up. In 1919, Punjab High Court was established in Lahore, which shifted to Shimla in 1947 after independence and further shifted to Chandigarh in 1955.

Federal Court and Supreme Court of India

Government of India Act of 1935

The Government India Act of 1935 provided for the establishment of the Federal Court, which could settle federal disputes between the governments. The Federal Court was set up in Delhi in 1937, consisting of Cheif Justice and not more than six judges. The court had original, appellate, and advisory jurisdiction. Its exclusive original jurisdiction was to solve the disputes between the provinces and federal states and hear the limited appeals from the High Courts. Under the advisory jurisdiction, it provides the advisory opinion to the governor-general of India.

The appeals from the Federal Court could lay at the Judicial Committee of the Privy council in London. After the Independence of India, the federal Court came to be known as the Supreme Court of India. The Constituent Assembly passed the Abolition of Privy council jurisdiction Act in 1949 to abolish the Privy council jurisdictions.

On 28 January 1950, the Supreme Court came into being, replacing the Federal Court of India and the judicial committee of the Privy Council. Therefore, the Supreme Court became the apex court of the Indian court system.

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