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Legal System in India during the British Period

India has one of the oldest legal systems in the world. Its law and jurisprudence stretches back centuries, forming a living tradition which has grown and evolved with the lives of its diverse people. The history of the present judicial system may be traced back to the year 1726, when a Charter was issued by King George I for bringing about important changes in the judicial administration of the Presidency Towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The system of appeals from India to the Privy Council in England was introduced by this Charter in 1726.

In order to bring about better management of the affairs of the East India Company, the East India Company Regulating Act of 1773 was promulgated by the King. This Act subjected the East India Company to the control of the British Government and made a provision for His Majesty by Charters or Letters Patent to establish the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William at Calcutta, superseding the then prevalent judicial system. The Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William was established by a letter patent issued on March 26, 1774. This Court, as a court of record, had full power and authority to hear and determine all complaints against any of His Majesty’s subjects for any crimes and also to entertain, hear and determine any suits or actions against any of His Majesty’s subjects in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Two more Supreme Courts, conceived along the same lines as that of the Supreme Court of Calcutta, were established at Madras and Bombay by King George III through Charters issued on 26th December, 1800 and on 8th December, 1823 respectively.

The role of the Privy Council has been a great unifying force and the instrument and embodiment of the rule of law in India. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was made a Statutory Permanent Committee of legal experts to hear appeals from the British Colonies in the year 1833 by an Act passed by the British Parliament. Thus, the Act of 1833 transformed the Privy Council into a great imperial court of unimpeachable authority.

The Indian High Court’s Act 1861 reorganized the then prevalent judicial system in the country by abolishing the Supreme Courts at Fort William, Madras, and Bombay, and also the then existing Sadar Adalats in the Presidency Towns. The High Courts were established having civil, criminal, admiralty, vice-admiralty, testimony, intestate, and matrimonial jurisdiction, as well as original and appellate jurisdiction.

Provincial autonomy was established in India with the establishment of the Government of India Act, 1935, which introduced responsibility at the provincial level and sought the Union of British Indian Provinces with the rulers of Estate in a federation. As a federal system depends largely upon a just and competent administration of the law between governments themselves, the 1935 Act provided for the establishment of the Federal Court, forerunner of the Supreme Court of India. The Federal Court was the second highest Court in the judicial hierarchy in India.

The Federal Court was the first Constitutional Court and also the first all-India Court of extensive jurisdiction, and it had Original Jurisdiction in matters where there was dispute.

between the provinces or federal States. It was also the Appellate Court for the judgments, decrees, or final orders of the High Courts. Thus, the Federal Court of India had original, appellate and advisory jurisdiction. The doctrine of precedent in India also had its roots in Federal Court as the law declared by the Federal Court and Privy Council has been given binding affect on all the courts in British India.

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