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The Indian Judicial System


India has one of the oldest legal systems in the world. Its law and jurisprudence stretches back
into the centuries, forming a living tradition which has grown and evolved with the lives of its
diverse people. India's commitment to law is created in the Constitution which constituted India
into a Sovereign Democratic Republic, containing a federal system with Parliamentary form of
Government in the Union and the States, an independent judiciary, guaranteed Fundamental
Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy containing objectives which though not
enforceable in law are fundamental to the governance of the nation.


The fountain source of law in India is the Constitution which, in turn, gives due recognition to
statutes, case law and customary law consistent with its dispensations. Statutes are enacted by
Parliament, State Legislatures and Union Territory Legislatures. There is also a vast body of
laws known as subordinate legislation in the form of rules, regulations as well as by-laws made
by Central and State Governments and local authorities like Municipal Corporations,
Municipalities, Gram Panchayats and other local bodies. This subordinate legislation is made
under the authority conferred or delegated either by Parliament or State or Union Territory
Legislature concerned. The decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all Courts within the
territory of India. As India is a land of diversities, local customs and conventions which are not
against statute, morality, etc. are to a limited extent also recognised and taken into account by
Courts while administering justice in certain spheres.


The Indian Parliament is competent to make laws on matters enumerated in the Union List.
State Legislatures are competent to make laws on matters enumerated in the State List. While
both the Union and the States have power to legislate on matters enumerated in the Concurrent
List, only Parliament has power to make laws on matters not included in the State List or the
Concurrent List. In the event of repugnancy, laws made by Parliament shall prevail over law
made by State Legislatures, to the extent of the repugnancy. The State law shall be void unless
it has received the assent of the President, and in such case, shall prevail in that State.


Laws made by Parliament may extend throughout or in any part of the territory of India and
those made by State Legislatures may generally apply only within the terrirory of the State
concerned. Hence, variations are likely to exist from State to State in provisions of law relating
to matters falling in the State and Concurrent Lists.

One of the unique features of the Indian Constitution is that, notwithstanding the adoption of a
federal system and existence of Central Acts and State Acts in their respective spheres, it has
generally provided for a single integrated system of Courts to administer both Union and State
laws. At the apex of the entire judicial system, exists the Supreme Court of India below which
are the High Courts in each State or group of States. Below the High Courts lies a Hierarchy of
Subordinate Courts. Panchayat Courts also function in some States under various names like
Nyaya Panchayat, Panchayat Adalat, Gram Kachheri, etc. to decide civil and criminal disputes
of petty and local nature. Different State laws provide for different kinds of jurisdiction of
courts. Each State is divided into judicial districts presided over by a District and Sessions
Judge, which is the principal civil court of original jurisdiction and can try all offences
including those punishable with death. The Sessions Judge is the highest judicial authority in a
district. Below him, there are Courts of civil jurisdiction, known in different States as Munsifs,
Sub-Judges, Civil Judges and the like. Similarly, the criminal judiciary comprises the Chief
Judicial Magistrates and Judicial Magistrates of First and Second Class.

Supreme Court of India


The Indian Judicial System has the Supreme Court of India at its helm, which at present is
located only in the capital city of Delhi, without any benches in any part of the nation, and is
presided by the Chief Justice of India.

The Supreme Court came into being on the 28th of January, 1950, exactly two days after India
became a Sovereign Democratic Republic. The inauguration took place in the Chamber of
Princes in the Parliament building which also housed India's Parliament, consisting of the
Council of States and the House of the People. It was here, in this Chamber of Princes, that the
Federal Court of India had sat for 12 years between 1937 and 1950. This was to be the home of
the Supreme Court for years that were to follow until the Supreme Court acquired its own
present premises.

The inaugural proceedings were simple but impressive. They began at 9.45 a.m. when the
Judges of the Federal Court - Chief Justice Harilal J.Kania and Justices Saiyid Fazl Ali, M.
Patanjali Sastri, Mehr Chand Mahajan, Bijan Kumar Mukherjea and S.R.Das - took their seats.
In attendance were the Chief Justices of the High Courts of Allahabad, Bombay, Madras,
Orissa, Assam, Nagpur, Punjab, Saurashtra, Patiala and the East Punjab States Union, Mysore,
Hyderabad, Madhya Bharat and Travancore-Cochin. Along with the Attorney General for
India, M.C. Setalvad were present the Advocate Generals of Bombay, Madras, Uttar Pradesh,
Bihar, East Punjab, Orissa, Mysore, Hyderabad and Madhya Bharat. Present too, were Prime
Minister, other Ministers, Ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of foreign States, a large
number of Senior and other Advocates of the Court and other distinguished visitors.

Taking care to ensure that the Rules of the Supreme Court were published and the names of all
the Advocates and agents of the Federal Court were brought on the rolls of the Supreme Court,
the inaugural proceedings were over and put under part of the record of the Supreme Court.

After its inauguration on January 28, 1950, the Supreme Court commenced its sittings in a part
of the Parliament House. The Court moved into the present building in 1958. The building is
shaped to project the image of scales of justice. The Central Wing of the building is the Centre
Beam of the Scales. In 1979, two New Wings - the East Wing and the West Wing - were added
to the complex. In all there are 15 Court Rooms in the various wings of the building. The Chief
Justice's Court is the largest of the Courts located in the Centre of the Central Wing.

The original Constitution of 1950 envisaged a Supreme Court with a Chief Justice and 7 puisne
Judges - leaving it to Parliament to increase this number. In the early years, all the Judges of the
Supreme Court sat together to hear the cases presented before them. As the work of the Court
increased and arrears of cases began to cumulate, Parliament increased the number of Judges
from 8 in 1950 to 11 in 1956, 14 in 1960, 18 in 1978 and 26 in 1986. As the number of the
Judges has increased, they sit in smaller Benches of two and three - coming together in larger
Benches of 5 and more only when required to do so or to settle a difference of opinion or

The Supreme Court of India has many Benches for the litigation, and this apex court is not only
the final court of permissible Appeal, but also deals with interstate matters, and matters
comprising of more than one state, and the matters between the Union Government and any one
or more states, as the matters on its original side. The President of India can always seek
consultation and guidance including the opinion of the apex court and its judges. This court
also has powers to punish anybody for its own contempt.

The largest bench of the Supreme Court of India is called the Constitution Bench and
comprises of 5 or 7 judges, depending on the importance attached of the matters before it, as
well as the work load of the court.

The apex court comprises only of various benches comprising of the Divisional benches of 2
and 3 judges, and the Full benches of 3 or 5 judges.

The Appeals to this court are allowed from the High Court, only after the matter is deemed to
be important enough on the point of law or on the subject of the constitution of the nation, and
is certified as such by the relevant High Court.

In the absence of any certificate from the High Court, a person may, with the leave of the apex
court, appeal to this court, by filing a Special Leave Petition before the court.
A person or body may also file a Writ against the violation of Fundamental Rights granted
under the Constitution of India, with the permission of the apex court.

Certain writs are allowed to be instituted in the apex court directly, against the orders of the
Courts of the Court Martial, and the Central Administrative Tribunals.

The Supreme Court of India comprises the Chief Justice and not more than 25 other Judges
appointed by the President of India. Supreme Court Judges retire upon attaining the age of 65
years. In order to be appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court, a person must be a citizen of
India and must have been, for atleast five years, a Judge of a High Court or of two or more such
Courts in succession, or an Advocate of a High Court or of two or more such Courts in
succession for at least 10 years or he must be, in the opinion of the President, a distinguished
jurist. Provisions exist for the appointment of a Judge of a High Court as an Ad-hoc Judge of
the Supreme Court and for retired Judges of the Supreme Court or High Courts to sit and act as
Judges of that Court.

The Constitution seeks to ensure the independence of Supreme Court Judges in various ways.
A Judge of the Supreme Court cannot be removed from office except by an order of the
President passed after an address in each House of Parliament supported by a majority of the
total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of members
present and voting, and presented to the President in the same Session for such removal on the
ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity. A person who has been a Judge of the Supreme
Court is debarred from practising in any court of law or before any other authority in India.

The proceedings of the Supreme Court are conducted in English only. Supreme Court Rules,
1966 are framed under Article 145 of the Constitution to regulate the practice and procedure of
the Supreme Court.


The Registry of the Supreme Court is headed by the Registrar General who is assisted in his
work by three Registrars, four Additional Registrars, twelve Joint Registrars etc. Article 146
of the Constitution deals with the appointments of officers and servants of the Supreme Court


The Attorney General for India is appointed by the President of India under Article 76 of the
Constitution and holds office during the pleasure of the President. He must be a person
qualified to be appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court. It is the duty of the Attorney
General for India to give advice to the Government of India upon such legal matters and to
perform such other duties of legal character as may be referred or assigned to him by the
President. In the performance of his duties, he has the right of audience in all Courts in India as
well as the right to take part in the proceedings of Parliament without the right to vote. In
discharge of his functions, the Attorney General is assisted by a Solicitor General and four
Additional Solicitors General.

There are three categories of Advocates who are entitled to practise law before the Supreme
Court of India:-


These are Advocates who are designated as Senior Advocates by the Supreme Court of India or
by any High Court. The Court can designate any Advocate, with his consent, as Senior
Advocate if in its opinion by virtue of his ability, standing at the Bar or special knowledge or
experience in law the said Advocate is deserving of such distinction. A Senior Advocate is not
entitled to appear without an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court or without a junior in
any other court or tribunal in India. He is also not entitled to accept instructions to draw
pleadings or affidavits, advise on evidence or do any drafting work of an analogous kind in any
court or tribunal in India or undertake conveyancing work of any kind whatsoever but this
prohibition shall not extend to settling any such matter as aforesaid in consultation with a


Only these Advocates are entitled to file any matter or document before the Supreme Court.
They can also file an appearance or act for a party in the Supreme Court.


These are Advocates whose names are entered on the roll of any State Bar Council maintained
under the Advocates Act, 1961 and they can appear and argue any matter on behalf of a party
in the Supreme Court but they are not entitled to file any document or matter before the Court.

High Courts
Every State has a High Court, which works under the direct guidance and supervision of the
Supreme Court of India, and is the uppermost court in that state, and generally the last court of
regular appeals. Though generally the High Courts are only the courts of Appeal, however in
the three presidency towns (As the British had then termed) of Mumbai [Bombay], Chennai
[Madras] and Kolkata [Calcutta], the High Courts also have powers of the original Side beyond
a certain financial limit.

The High Courts are also termed as the courts of equity, and can be approached in writs not
only for violation of fundamental rights under the provisions of Article 32 of the Indian
constitution, but also for any other rights under Article 226 of the Constitution, and under its
powers to supervise over all its subordinate courts falling within the physical jurisdiction of the
same under Article 227 of the Constitution. In fact, when apparently there is no effective
remedy available to a person in equity, it can always move the High Court in an appropriate

High Courts frame their own rules, and arrange to implement them.

Under certain provisions of Law, the High Courts have the ordinary original civil jurisdiction.

Many times the High Courts have concurrent jurisdiction along with its subordinate courts, for
effective remedy at the earliest.

All the High Courts have different division benches in different parts of the respective states for
speedier cheaper and effective dispensing of justice.

For the purpose of disposal of its business, the Judges in the High Court, either sit singly or in
benches of two or more judges in benches for deciding more important matters.

Subordinate Courts to High Court

a) District Judges

These courts are primarily Civil Courts to hear generally the appeals from the courts of original
civil jurisdiction in the Districts and Tehsils (Talukas). However these courts have also been
given original civil jurisdiction under many enactments.

b) Sessions Judges

These courts are primarily Criminal Courts, with jurisdiction to revise the orders from the
subordinate magistrates as well as to try serious offences, as prescribed by law.

c) Appellate Co-Operative Courts

These courts hear only the Appeals and revisions emanating from the judgments and orders of
the subordinate original Co-Operative Courts and officers, under the provisions of various Co-
Operative and related laws.

d) Appellate Labour Courts

These courts hear only the Appeals and revisions emanating from the judgments and orders of
the subordinate original Labour Courts and officers, under the provisions of various labour and
related laws.

e) Income Tax Tribunals

These courts though being primarily administrative in nature, yet they hear the Appeals and
revisions emanating from the judgments and orders of the subordinate officers of the
department, under the provisions of the Income Tax and other relevant laws.

f) Central Excise Tribunal

These courts though being primarily administrative in nature, yet they hear the Appeals and
revisions emanating from the judgments and orders of the subordinate officers of the
department, under the provisions of the Central Excise Act and other relevant laws.

g) Sales Tax Tribunals

These courts though being primarily administrative in nature, yet they hear the Appeals and
revisions emanating from the judgments and orders of the subordinate officers of the
department, under the provisions of the Sales Tax and other relevant laws of both the union
government as well as various state governments.

h) City Civil and Sessions Courts

These Courts are only in the Presidency Towns of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, and are
primarily Civil Courts of original jurisdiction of higher monetary valued suits, however these
courts have also been given powers of certain appeals against its subordinate small causes
courts. The sessions courts are primarily Criminal Courts, with jurisdiction to revise the orders
from the subordinate metropolitan magistrates as well as to try serious offences, as prescribed
by law.

i) Accident Claims Tribunals

These tribunal try only the Claims of the victims of various road and rail accidents. Though
there are very few rail Accident tribunals, however there is generally at least one Motor
Accident Claims Tribunals in every district. These courts have a completely different Court
Fees structure compared to those of the regular civil courts of original jurisdiction.

j) Revenue Tribunals and Other Subordinate Revenue Courts

There are various revenue Tribunals and other subordinate revenue Appellate bodies in the
administrative Hierarchy of the Revenue Departments of various State Governments to hear the
matters pertaining to the land revenue and other relevant laws of various states.

k) Special Courts

The governments from time to time also appoint certain Special Courts to try particular matters
deemed to be very important for public life, and for expeditiously trying these matters, which
are mainly treated as very grave and heinous compared to the actual charges of sections framed
against the persons tried, mainly as leading public enemies.

There are also other courts not subordinate to any of the

High Courts, but where only a writ may lie before the
High Court or only to the Supreme Court
l) Administrative Tribunals

The Central Government as well as the State Governments have set up various administrative
tribunals for the purpose of conducting various disciplinary actions against their senior and
other employees, as well as for their grievance redressal. These tribunals work under special
laws framed, and form an hierarchical pattern for the conduct of their business.

m) Military and Other Similar Courts

These Courts also known for their procedure called Court Marshall, are made in the
administrative Hierarchy o the army, navy and air force of the nation under various acts
governing them individually, and are completely separated from any other procedure or court,
though still well within the four corners of the national constitution.

Sub-Subordinate Courts

(also called the Original courts - due to the litigation begins mostly in these courts)

1] Principal Civil Judges (SD & JD)

Depending on the monetary jurisdiction assigned to the category of the court, all the civil
litigation matters are filed before the courts of the original civil jurisdiction, either the Senior
Division or the Junior Division. Most of the times there are more than one Judges of the Junior
Division in every Tehsil, and of Senior Division in every District.

2] The Chief Judicial Magistrates and other Judicial Magistrates of First Class

Every district is headed by the Chief Judicial Magistrate who heads over the other Judicial
Magistrates of First Class in every Tehsil, these courts being primary criminal courts, where
every offender is first produced after arrest by the police.

2-A] Special Executive Magistrates

These and other Magistrates of the Second class are appointed for trying of very minor criminal
offences and quasi criminal matters, and generally report directly to and are subordinate to the
Chief Judicial Magistrates, who also generally hears appeals against the orders passed by these

3] Co-Operative Courts
These courts are courts with original jurisdiction, formed for hearing the cases directly filed
under the various Co-Operative Laws, and also in the form of appeal against certain
administrative orders of the Co-Operative Registrars and Sub-Registrars.

3-A] Co-Operative Registrar

Works as per the assignment and powers granted under various Co-Operative laws, and
generally hold supervisory judicial powers including those of revision of the orders of the Sub-
Registrars of Co-Operatives, directly subordinate to them.

3-B] Co-Operative Sub-Registrar

The officers of the lowest rank, who can entertain and decide various applications under
various Co-Operative Laws.

4] Labour Courts

These Courts normally found in every District, are the courts of original jurisdiction under the
provisions of various Labour Laws and enactments, including powers to enforce various rules
framed under those enactments.

5] Tax officers' Hierarchy

There is an Hierarchy of officers in various and different. Government departments of taxation,

who decide not only the original applications and matters, but also entertain appeals against the
orders of their hierarchical subordinates.

6] Small Causes Courts

These courts, a legacy of the British Raj, are the courts of original civil jurisdiction in minor
civil matters and litigation and only in the presidency towns of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Though under certain acts, exclusive jurisdiction, irrespective of the monetary valuation of the
subject matter, is granted to these courts.

7] Courts of the Metropolitan Magistrates

Again another legacy of the British Raj, these courts are the courts of original criminal
jurisdiction in the presidency towns of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Though under certain
acts, exclusive jurisdiction, where every offender is first produced after arrest by the police.

8] Revenue Officers' Hierarchy

All the matters pertaining to the Land revenue, an exclusive state subject, are decided at various
levels by certain officers of the revenue departments of the State governments, the lowest of
them being the Talathi of Patwari at Village level, going up to the Circle Inspector, by
whichever name known, and supervised in effect by the officers of the rank of Tehsildar - also
known in many places as the Mamletdar, who also get their powers many a times under special
laws framed for their conduct of allocated business, and for the procedure to be followed in
their courts.

Normally an appeal lies form the orders of each one of the aforestated officers in the Hierarchy
of the Land Revenue Officers before an officer of the rank of an Assistant Collector, being the
person in-charge of a part of a revenue district, who in turn reports to and is subjudicated by the
Collector in the district, and further in the hierarchical order by a Divisional Commissioner
heading a group of revenue districts in a state, who are all under the State level Revenue

9] Administrative Hierarchy

Similar to the Hierarchy in the Land revenue Department, there are various hierarchies in also
the other government and semi-government departments, who basically decide on the routine
administrative and Human Resources as well as the disciplinary matters, including the conduct
of the internal enquiries, and in all these hierarchies, there are always superior officers
appointed at various stages, to supervise, overlook and even hear appeals against the orders
passed by the hierarchically subordinate officers of various such departments.

10] Police Hierarchy

Similar to the previous hierarchies of various Departments, there are certain matters routinely
handled by superior officers of the ranks of Assistant Police Commissioners and Deputy
superintendent of Police (the rank at the initialisation stages of the officers of the Indian Police
Service Rank) which handle various minor criminal matters like externment, habitual
offenders, property possession disputes leading to breach of law and order etc., against whose
orders appeals can be made to higher officials in the same Hierarchy.

 K V Venkatasubramanian