Indian Judicial system has a three tiered structure,comprising of the Supreme Court at the top,High Courts at the helm of various states and various district and session courts,lower courts of civil and criminal jurisdiction such as metropolitan magistrate courts etc.at the lowest level.
This structure of Indian judiciary is in a way derived from legal system established by the British, who ruled the Indian subcontinent for more than 20 years. Thus one can see lot of similarities between British and Indian Judiciary. The Indian Judiciary is an autonomous body that operates with a range of courts such as Supreme Court, High Courts and District Courts. It is also distinct in its scope and jurisdiction from the legislative bodies, such as Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, and the executive bodies, such as Central Government, State Governments and Union Territories etc. Let’s take a look at the Indian Judicial System in detail.
India has a recorded legal history since the Vedic times. Even as early as 300 BC, there existed a legal system which was governed by the rules laid out in Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft written by Kautilya and during the later stages of 100 AD it was governed according to the tenets of Manusmriti. Ancient Indian people also followed ‘Amrithis’ (rules and procedures of the time and place) as described in Vedas, Upanishads and scriptures followed by Hindu, Jain and Buddhists. Ancient Indian history is replete with stories about kings and rulers conducting daily courts to deal with civil and criminal cases. Following the Mughal conquest of Indian subcontinent, the region came under Mughal laws and judicial system. But after the British Empire took over the region, a new legal system came into existence, with separate laws for Muslims and Hindus and drastic changes in the commercial, criminal and procedural laws.
When India attained Independence, a framework for the new legal system was drawn in the form of “Indian Constitution”. As a result, a unified and hierarchical judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court came into existence. Although many laws from the British period were preserved, changes were made to give powers to the Supreme Court rather than to the Privy Council as dictated by the British rule. Some of the amendments made were:
- Each state should have a single judiciary with the High Court at the apex. There should not be any lower central courts, but there will be specialized tribunals to handle cases on income tax and labour matters
- The traditional justice will be resurrected in the form of informal village courts
- Constitutionalism came into effect where courts were given empowerment and legislative and administrative acts that violate the Indian Constitution would be acted against
- Issues regarding Fundamental Rights of citizens can be directly brought to the High Courts or the Supreme Court without the need for lodging the complaint in local courts. This also led to the development of an elaborate constitutional jurisprudence
- After India was declared as a secular state, equality among individuals became a nodal aspect. So the practice of “untouchability” and other social practices were abolished from the Indian Constitution
- Tribal groups and other backward class groups were given privileges in jobs, schools and other career prospects
- Laws for the empowerment of rights of women, abolition of dowry and emancipation of bonded labourers were created
- The Constitution also laid out that over a period of time a Uniform Civil Code and the same set of secular civil laws will be enacted to govern all people irrespective of their religion, caste and tribe.
Present Indian Judicial System
The existing Indian Judicial System is framed by one of the lengthiest, written Constitutions in the history. The Constitution declares India as a sovereign socialist, democratic and republic country assuring all its citizens equality, justice and liberty. The new system has laid down all the powers, duties, procedures and structures of government at the union and state levels. It contains 395 articles and 12 schedules and numerous amendments enacted from time to time.
It has also provided for various provisions for setting up a single integrated system of courts for administering union and state laws. The striking feature of the modern judiciary is the use of a common law system which combines decisions, orders and judgments from judges in addition to statutory and regulatory laws. This common law, in contrast to the British laws was only limited to decisions, orders and judgments from judges. Another salient feature of our judicial system is that it follows the adversarial system. In the adversarial system, if a case is analyzed, the case is said to have two sides and both the sides can present their arguments to a neutral judge, who would give his/her final judgment after analyzing the merits of each side.
The laws of the Indian judiciary are also drawn from other legal systems, but designed in a manner that the laws do not conflict with each other while dealing with the rights and benefits of the nation and people. For ex: our judiciary has adopted the policy of providing powers to Supreme Court and High Court. This has been taken from the American legal system.
According to the Constitution, Supreme Court is the Apex Court and it will be followed by various High Courts at the state levels. The High Court can have jurisdiction on one or more states based on the High Courts availability in each state and hence some states can share High Courts with other states (For ex: Punjab and Haryana share the HC of Chandigarh). Below the level of High Courts there will be subordinate courts comprising of District Courts and the Session Courts and other lower courts.
The Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court came into existence after India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic country on January 28 1950. It is the highest judicial forum and the final court for appeals as on to the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court is only located at the capital of India, Delhi, without any benches in any part of the nation. The Supreme Court is presided by the Chief Justice of India and the retirement age of the Chief Justice is 65 years. Currently Justice M.L.Dattu is the Chief Justice of India and he will be and the helm of the Indian judiciary from 28th September 2014- 2nd Dec 2015
Composition of Supreme Court and pre-requisites of SC Judges:
The Supreme Court comprises of the Chief Justice and 30 other judges (since 2008) who are appointed by the President of India. The number of judges has increased in the Supreme Court from time-to-time. During 1950s, the total numbers of judges were 8 and it was increased to 11 in 1960. The count was increased to 18 during 1978. In 1986, the number went up to 26 and again it was raised to 31 in 2008. The increases have been mainly due to the accumulation of cases and the increased workload of courts.
The cases in the SC are heard by different benches with varied sizes. The largest bench of the Supreme Court is referred to as the Constitution bench that consists of 5 to 7 judges. The constitution of a bench is done after analyzing the magnitude of the case and the work load it entails. A Divisional Bench comprises of two judges, while a Full Bench may consist of 3 to 5 judges.
- A person who is appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court has to be a citizen of India
- He/she must have at least served as a High Court judge or two or more such courts for 5 years in succession or as an Advocate of a High Court or two or more such courts for at least 10 years in succession
- The President should give a good opinion about the judge and in the President’s view, the Supreme Court judge should be a distinguished jurist.
The judges of Supreme Court will be discharged from their duties as a result of death or when he/she attains the retirement age of 65 years. However, he/she can be removed from duty from the order of the President due to misbehaviour or incapacity, in which case there would be a vote in the Houses of Parliament, which should be supported by two-third of the voting members. Also, a person who has served as a Supreme Court judge cannot practice in any court and should not practice before any Indian Authority.
Functions of Supreme Court
- SC deals with interstate matters, issues pertaining to more than one state and issues between the Union Government and one or more states
- It has the power to punish anyone for its own contempt
- Appeals to the Supreme Court are allowed from High Courts only if the matter is deemed to be highly important or has an effect on fundamental principles and laws of the Indian Constitution. Matters escalated to the Supreme Court by the High Courts should also be certified by the HC for their severity
- Supreme Court can review orders passed by HC and it can also transfer the case from one HC to other or from one District Court to another
- The Supreme Court exercises judicial independence on all judicial, legal and other matters of state
- The proceedings of the Supreme Court are conducted in English only
- A High Court has powers to correct errors on petitions from cases of lower courts and tribunals in judicial and quasi judicial matters
- High Courts are required to hear all the orders dictated by Sessions Courts and declare references in case of criminal cases
- High Courts hear criminal appeals from Session and Additional Session judges or from any other court, where more than seven years of imprisonment are awarded for a convict
- High Courts, when dealing with large numbers of cases of particular regions, may have permanent benches situated there.
Appointment of High Court Judges
The High Court judges are usually appointed by the President of India in consultation with the Chief Justice of India and the Governor of the State. The number of judges in a HC is decided by the average registration of total number of cases in the previous five years or the average clearance of number of main cases per year in that respective High Court.
These courts are under the administrative control of High Courts and the jurisdiction of these courts is confined to the districts they are responsible for. They have almost similar structures in all parts of the country and they deal with civil and criminal cases and revenue cases with their respective jurisdiction under Code of Civil Procedure and Code of Criminal Procedure and Land Revenue Acts. They are basically classified into two types as District and Sessions Courts to deal with civil and criminal cases, respectively.
District Judge, Additional District Judge and Civil Judge will deal with civil cases. The civil issues will only be escalated to the High Court, if the amount of dispute in the matter is way above the jurisdiction of the District Courts. The decisions of the District Courts are subject to the appellate jurisdiction of the High Court.
The Session judges usually handle criminal cases with jurisdiction in order to revise the orders from subordinate magistrates and other serious offences.
The subordinate or lower courts can broadly be classified into Civil Courts, Criminal Courts and Revenue Courts.
Civil courts handle disputes between two or more persons regarding property, breach of agreement or contract, divorce, landlord and tenant issues, and others. These courts do not award any punishments to the convicts. The hierarchy of the civil court contains Munsifs at the low level, followed by Sub-judge and additional sub-judge and then followed by District Judge on top of the hierarchy. Most of the civil cases will be filed in Munsifs and it will be then heard by sub-judge and additional sub-judge and the appeals from them will go to the District Court. The final verdict will be given by the District Judge after hearing all the sides of the case. If the petitioner feels the verdict is not satisfactory, he/she is entitled to escalate the case to the High Court.
The appointment of officers and other functionaries of the Supreme Court are usually done by the Supreme Court Registry. The Registry is headed by Secretary General, who gets assistance from seven Registrars and twenty one Additional Registrars.
Jurisdiction of Supreme Court
The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is divided into: Original jurisdiction, Advisory Jurisdiction, Writ Jurisdiction and Appellate Jurisdiction.
Original Jurisdiction is referred to as the process when the court hears the issue for the first time. It is usually applied while hearing cases of conflicts between the Government of India and one or more states or between one state and other state or between two or more states. The original jurisdiction is also applied for issues regarding Fundamental Rights.
It is the process when a case is heard for the second instance. For ex: if the case is escalated from High Court to Supreme Court, the appellate jurisdiction is applied. The apex court hears appeals against any judgment or final order with respect to civil or criminal cases or Constitutional matters that require an interpretation of the Constitution or on a matter of general importance such as awarding death sentences.
The Writ Jurisdiction is also a part of the Original Jurisdiction, where it can issue directions for enforcement of any rights including the Fundamental Rights.
This type of jurisdiction mainly involves advising on matters, which is usually referred to the President of India.
The Supreme Court also gives permission to advocates to practice law based on three categories. They are: Senior Advocates, Advocates-on-record and other advocates.
Senior Advocates: These people are usually appointed by HC or SC based on the skill and knowledge of professionals. A senior advocate cannot appear in the SC without advocate-on-record or without any junior in any other court. He/she is not entitled to draw affidavits or any drafting works of the Supreme Court.
Advocates-on-record: These advocates are only entitled to file any matter or documents before the Supreme Court.
Other Advocates: They can argue on behalf of any party in the Supreme Court, but are not entitled to file any documents before the Supreme Court.
Some of the recent notable high profile cases handled by the Supreme Court include 2G spectrum scam case, judgment on National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, Coal scam, and others.
The High Courts are the supreme judicial authorities at the state level. There are 24 High Courts in India at the state level and all the High Courts are governed by the orders and rules of the Supreme Court of India. These courts are entitled to exercise their jurisdiction powers in the state, union territories or a group of states or group of union territories based on the necessity.
The distinction between the Supreme Court and a High Courts are:
- Any law or order passed by a High Court need not necessarily be binding on other High Courts or subordinate courts under them, unless these courts choose to follow their judgments. However, orders passed by the Supreme Court are binding on all other courts
- The territorial jurisdiction of the High Courts are varied.
The Court of Sessions Judge is the highest court to handle the criminal cases in a district. These cases relate to violation of laws pertaining to theft, dacoit, rape, pick-pocketing, physical assault, murder and so on. The cases will be usually filed against the accused by police and it will be submitted for hearings in the later stages of dealing with the case. These courts also award punishments to the convict, if he/she is found guilty. The punishments can be imprisonment, fine or even death sentence depending upon the severity of the case.
These courts mainly deal with land revenues of the state. The lands will mostly be agricultural and revenue lands of the district.
Tribunals and Regulators
Apart from all above cited courts, there are also public administrative agencies which exercise powers resembling to that of a court of law called quasi judicial system to enforce certain actions. Such bodies are called Tribunals and Regulatory Bodies. A Tribunal is a statutory system for addressing grievances and dispute adjudications. Some of the Tribunals are – Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) which deals with disputes arising from recruitment conditions and services of persons of public services, Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) which deals with issues of the telecom sector, Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) which deals about the issues of armed forces, Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) which deals with administrative control of Banking and Financial services. The functions and jurisdictions of these Tribunals are limited to the specific areas and are not applicable to other areas.
Regulatory bodies are bodies that regulate all corporate activities which fall under the purview of the statute. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI, and State Electricity Regulatory Commissions are two examples of such regulatory bodies.
The Indian judicial system has undergone various changes since Independence and has evolved into a robust structure and system of justice. Recent notable developments in this system include computerisation of courts, setting up of special courts, fast-track courts and evening courts for quick disposal of cases, setting up of Lok Adalats to resolve petty disputes and others.
At a time when sections of Indian political system, bureaucracy media and business sectors are dogged by charges of corruption, nepotism and crony capitalism, judiciary more or less has been a polestar. Though criticised as practicing activism by a few, India’s Apex court to its credit has been unsparing on shady practices of the executive and government bodies. No wonder many view our judicial system as one of the few hopes for the future of this country.