The judiciary in India has grown to a massive scale and plays a huge role in the administration of the nation. But it wasn’t always like this. AFREEN ALAM offers a succinct introduction to the origins of the legal system in India, going over some of the key events that played a role in its birth.
won the Battle of Plassey, it obtained the diwani rights (the right to adjudicate revenue and civil matters, collect revenue and keep the surplus); the company felt that it needed a uniform and efficient system to collect revenue and administer justice.FTER the East India Company
Warren Hastings played a massive part in the battle and impressed Robert Clive, the first Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, who insisted he become the British Resident at Murshidabad, the capital of Bengal, in 1758. After quickly rising up the ranks, in 1771, he was appointed the Governor of Calcutta. Soon after, he came up with his first legal reformation plan, known as the Judicial Plan of 1772.
Judicial Plan of 1772
The Committee of Circuit prepared the first judicial plan under the chairmanship of Hastings. In this plan, the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa were divided into districts. Each district was put under the direct control of a collector, who was responsible for the collection of revenue. The collector also had judicial powers. The district was the central administrative unit of the plan.
It also consisted of 37 regulations dealing with both civil and criminal laws. They were made in accordance with the prevailing system and culture of the people of the subcontinent. The main idea was to retain, as much as possible, the native code of laws and magistracy of the people.
Courts of original jurisdiction
The area under the company, outside the presidency limits of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, came to be known as mofussil. The following classes of courts of law were established for the mofussil districts:
Mofussil Faujdari Adalat: This was the court of criminal jurisdiction established in each district. The collector was responsible for the general supervision and ensuring that justice was administered. The court was presided over by a qazi (magistrate) and a mufti (jurist empowered to give rulings on religious matters), and assisted by two maulvis (expert in law, usually Islamic law), who expounded the law. The court had the power to decide and punish all criminal cases.
Mofussil Diwani Adalat: This was the court of civil jurisdiction established in each district. The court was presided over by the collector. In suits regarding inheritance, caste, marriage, and other religious usage and institutions, the court was required to apply “the laws of the Quran with regards to the Mohammedans, and those of the Shastras with respect to the Hindus.” The judgments of the court up to the financial value of five hundred rupees were final and binding.
Small Cause Adalat: This was the civil court set up to deal with petty cases, and decide disputes up to the value of ten rupees. In each district, the head farmer was assigned the duty of adjudicating justice in this court.
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Sadar Nizamat Adalat: This was the criminal court of appeals presided over by the Daroga -i- Adalat; he was assisted by the chief qazi, chief mufti, and three maulvis. All capital cases came directly to this court. A major function of this adalat was to approve death sentences and property forfeitures. The governor and the Supreme Council of Bengal exercised general supervision over this court.
Sadar Diwani Adalat: This court heard appeals from the Mofussil Diwani Adalat of cases valued over Rs. 500. It was composed of the Governor and the Supreme Council. It used to charge five percent of the amount of dispute on each petition or appeal.
With a view to preserve the courts’ impartiality and keep proper supervision, the courts were required to give judgments in the open, and maintain appropriate registers and records. Some rules of procedure and limitations were also laid out for the first time to introduce efficiency and avoid delays in the legal proceedings.
Judicial plan of 1774
The institution of collector was abolished in 1773 on the advice of the court of directors of the company in England. This necessitated new reforms, which Hastings ushered in through a new judicial plan, implemented in 1774.
As per the judicial plan of 1774, the collectors were recalled from the districts. In their place, an Indian officer, who was called diwan or amil, was appointed. He was to act as judge of the Mofussil Diwani Adalat and collected the land revenue.
The whole mofussil area in Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar was divided into six divisions, headquartered at Calcutta, Murshidabad, Dacca, Dinajpur, Burdwan and Patna. Each division had a provincial council consisting of four of five British civil servants of the company.
The council supervised the collection of land revenue, heard appeals against the decisions of the mofussil diwani adalat, and administered original civil jurisdiction at the place of its seat. Appeal against the Council’s judgments was allowed before the sadar diwani adalat if the suit was valued at more than Rs. 1,000. Complaints against the naib diwans (deputy diwan), head farmers, zamindars (landowner), and other officers of the government concerning their department in the revenue were decided by the provincial councils.
The officers of the faujdari adalats were prohibited from holding farms or other offices in the mofussil, and were obliged to live in their districts in pain of forfeiting their employment. Complaints against them were to be lodged with the Governor-General, who would refer them to the sadar nizamat adalat for inquiry and determination.
The judicial plan of 1774 was an improvement over the initial plan of 1772, but it could not sustain for long. The Council had too much power and created difficulties, monopolizing the trade within their jurisdiction.
It is also important to note that with the Regulating Act of 1773, the Supreme Court at Calcutta was formed, which consisted of a chief justice and three other judges. Barristers of England or Ireland of not less than five years of standing were eligible to be appointed as judges of the Supreme Court. These judges were appointed by the Crown and served in the office as per His Majesty’s pleasure.
Judicial plan of 1780
After the establishment of the provincial councils, it was eventually realized that they did not work properly. The councils’ members had revenue and other executive work, which was more important than their judicial work. The council members did not care much for their judicial work, most of which was left to be done by the law officers.
Hence, the law officers were left with near-complete discretion to decide court matters as per their wishes; this led to a lot of corruption. When Hastings came to know about these defects, he attempted to remove them with the new judicial plan of 1780.
The plan of 1780 separated the revenue and judicial functions. Now, the courts worked more independently, and with better insight into the litigants’ problems.
To improve the sadar diwani adalat, Warren appointed Sir Elijah Impey as its sole judge in October 1780. At this time, Sir Impey was also the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Calcutta. He remained in office for a year and made some fundamental reforms in the administration of justice. He increased the number of diwani adalats from 6 to 18 to reduce the inconvenience of traveling long distances. The diwani adalat was directed to hear all cases after administering proper oath to the witnesses.
The first code of civil procedure was also introduced under him; it consisted of 95 clauses, and was passed by the Governor-General and the Supreme Council in July 1781.
However, the British government in England was not in favour of Hastings’ appointment of Sir Impey to the sadar diwani adalat. It considered this a violation of the Regulating Act that had established a judicial system at Calcutta that was to be independent of all control of the company. According to them, by accepting the judgeship of the diwani adalat, Chief Justice Impey had put himself under the subordination of the company.
In 1782, he was recalled back to England. After his departure, the sadar diwani adalat reverted to its previous format, with the Governor-General and the Supreme Council administering justice.
While the origins of the legal system were humble, they were foundationally strong. Many of the traditions and practices developed back then are still actively used in Indian courts today. This is nothing short of achievement by those who helped frame these practices and procedures, thereby aiding the development of Indian jurisprudence – on which our nation has thrived.
[Afreen Alam is a law student, researcher, and writer from Delhi. She is a law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.]