The Bombay High Court : Celebrating 150 Years of Legal Heritage


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By  Manish Desai

The author is Director  (Media), Press Information Bureau, Mumbai

Mumbai, Aug 16, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India) Facing the lush green Oval Maidan in South Mumbai, is the Gothic Style heritage building that has witnessed many legal battles including the trials of Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, which changed the course of our history.  This is the premise of the Bombay High Court, which turned 150, a day before the Independence Day.

It is in fact the second oldest High Court in India, established on August 14, 1862, just about a month after the Calcutta High Court was established, under the High Courts Act of 1861.  The Madras High Court (15.08.1862) and the Allahabad High Court (11.06.1866) were the other High Courts established under the same act.

Early Days of Legal System

The legal history of Bombay (now Mumbai) precedes the establishment of the High Court at least by two centuries.  This was when a group of seven swampy islands of Koli fishermen became British possessions as part of dowry of the Portugese Princess Catherine of Braganza at her marriage to the British monarch King Charles –II.

In the early years, the administration of Justice was in the hands of Judges who held their sittings in the Custom Houses of Bombay and Mahim. The main architect of the Judicial system during this period was Gerald Aungier, the Governor of Surat Factory.  But the system of 1670 was very elementary and suffered from several drawbacks. The judicial system was too much identified with the executive government of the Island.

Admiralty Court and the Mayor’s Court

The setting up of an Admiralty Court in 1684 under the Charter of 1683 opened the second phase in development of the Bombay Judiciary. In 1726, the issue of the charter by King George I to the Company turned over a new leaf in the evolution of the judicial institutions. The Charter of 1726 introduced a uniformity of approach and established similar judicial institutions. Thus in 1726.”The Mayor’s Court” was established under direct authority of the King.

The Mayor’s Court was to be a Court of record and thus had power to punish persons who might be guilty of its contempt. Like the previous Court, even the Mayor’s Court was not completely free of the executive influence as the aldermen were either the Company’s servants or other English traders who depended upon the Company’s permission to stay in India.

In 1798,  the Mayor’s Court was abolished and in its place was established the Recorder’s Court, as per the Charter of 1798. Judicial administration in Bombay was completely changed for the better by the establishment of this Court. It consisted of a Mayor, three Aldermen and a Recorder appointed by the Crown, who was to be a Barrister of not less then 5 years standing.  With the Recorders’ Courts a great step was taken towards the elimination of the Executive from the Judicial sphere.

The official association of Indians in the administration of law started with the establishment of this Court. A Hindu Pandit learned in the Law of the Shastras and a Muslim Malvi, learned in the Law of Shariat were appointed to assist the Recorder in determination of cases involving points of Hindu & Mahommedan Law.

The Supreme Court

In 1823, an Act of Parliament authorised the Crown to establish a Supreme Court in place of the Recorder’s Court at Bombay by Royal Charter. The Supreme Court functioned from 1824 to 1862. English barristers began to practice in Bombay and some of them achieved distinction in the High Court later. Several notable judgments were given in the Supreme Court, which made an important contributions to the development of Law in India.

In 1852, it was urged upon the Parliamentary Committee for East India Affairs that it was desirable to consolidate the Supreme Court and the Sadar Adalats in each Presidency towns. After the Indian War of Independence of 1857, the East India Company was dissolved and the Government of India was taken over by the Crown in 1858. This created a sense of responsibility in the British Government for administration in India and a complete over hauling of the judicial system took place. This led to the passing of the High Courts Act of 1861 by the British Parliament leading to the creation of High Courts in the three Presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

In the first century of British Justice in Bombay , there is no record of any Indian judge or lawyer. It was only after the establishment of the High Court that Indian Barristers began to make their appearances in the High Court.

The Bombay High Court has jurisdiction over the states of Maharashtra & Goa, and, the Union Territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The High Court has regional benchesat Nagpur and Aurangabad in Maharashtra and Panaji, Goa.  Initially, it also had a bench in Rajkot to look after the cases emanating from Saurashtra. However, with the establishment of Maharashtra and Gujarat as separate states in 1960, the Rajkot bench ceased to be part of the Bombay High Court.  Presently, the court has a sanctioned strength of 75 judges.  The Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa has enrolled approximately 90,000 advocates on its roll.

The High Court Building

The High Court was first housed in a building in Apollo Street called the Admiralty House where the Recorder’s Court and the Supreme Court held their sittings. The work on the present building of the High Court was commenced in April 1871 and completed in November 1878.  The building which is early English-Gothic was designed by Colonel J.A.Fuller, and was completed at a cost of Rs. 16,44,528 which was about Rs. 3000, less then the sanctioned estimate.

Some unobserved architectural features of the present building consist of certain sculptures in odd nooks and corners of the walls and ceiling on the western corridor, which display sundry heads of wolves and foxes with counsel’s bands around their necks. There is also a sculpture of a monkey judge, presumably inspired by the Aesop’s fable of ‘The Monkey and the Cats’.  Interestingly, one eye of the monkey is blindfolded and the scale of justice in its hand is unevenly balanced.

The true symbol of Justice, the stone statue of the Goddess of Justice, is on the  western front of the High Court building. She is represented with both eyes blindfolded and holding the Sword of Justice in one hand and the Scales meticulously even in the other.

Bombay high court has produced legal luminaries like Soli Sorabji, Fali Nariman, Justice MC Chagla and the present Chief Justice of India, Sarosh Kapadia, who practiced in the high court for a long time before being appointed as a judge. Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati, the country’s top law officer, has been associated with the Bombay High court since August 1972.

The High Court has also pronounced several landmark judgments covering various political, economic and social issues over its 150 years of functioning.  It has played its part in upholding India’s legal system, which the Law and Justice Minister and the Chief Guest at the Sesquicentennial celebrations Mr.Salman Khurshid said,  would give India an edge over China in the long run.  Indeed, the old institution of Oval Maidan has been symbol of judicial independence for 150 years.

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