SILF - Indian Judicial System

The Indian Judicial System is one of the oldest legal systems in the world today. It is part of the inheritance India received from the British after more than 200 years of their Colonial rule, and the same is obvious from the many similarities the Indian legal system shares with the English Legal System. The frame work of the current legal system has been laid down by the Indian Constitution and the judicial system derives its powers from it.

The Constitution of India is the supreme law of the country, the fountain source of law in India. It came into effect on 26 January 1950 and is the world’s longest written constitution.

It not only laid the framework of Indian judicial system, but has also laid out the powers, duties, procedures and structure of the various branches of the Government at the Union and State levels. Moreover, it also has defined the fundamental rights & duties of the people and the directive principles which are the duties of the State.

Inspite of India adopting the features of a federal system of government, the Constitution has provided for the setting up of a single integrated system of courts to administer both Union and State laws. The Supreme Court is the apex court of India, followed by the various High Courts at the state level which cater to one or more number of states. Below the High Courts exist the subordinate courts comprising of the District Courts at the district level and other lower courts.

An important feature of the Indian Judicial System, is that it’s a ‘common law system’. In a common law system, law is developed by the judges through their decisions, orders, or judgments. These are also referred to as precedents. Unlike the British legal system which is entirely based on the common law system, where it had originated from, the Indian system incorporates the common law system along with the statutory law and the regulatory law.

Another important feature of the Indian Judicial system is that our system has been designed on the pattern of the adversarial system. This is to be expected since courts based on the common law system tend to follow the adversarial system of conducting proceedings instead of the inquisitorial system. In an adversarial system, there are two sides in every case and each side presents its arguments to a neutral judge who would then give an order or a judgment based upon the merits of the case.

Indian judicial system has adopted features of other legal systems in such a way that they do not conflict with each other while benefitting the nation and the people. For example, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have the power of judicial review. This is a concept prevalent in the American legal system. According to the concept of judicial review, the legislative and executive actions are subject to the scrutiny of the judiciary and the judiciary can invalidate such actions if they are ultra vires of the Constitutional provisions. In other words, the laws made by the legislative and the rules made by the executive need to be in conformity with the Constitution of India.

The powers and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the High Courts and subordinate courts like the District Courts are discussed below.


Jurisdiction & Powers of the Courts

Supreme Court of India

One of the most important powers of the Supreme Court of India is that any law declared or order/judgment passed by it is binding on all the courts within the territory of India.

The jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court (SC) are defined under Articles 131 to 142 of the Indian Constitution. The jurisdiction includes original, writ, and appellate jurisdiction.

Original Jurisdiction refers to the power of the court to hear disputes when they arise for the first time. By exercising its power of Original jurisdiction the Supreme Court can hear disputes between,

  • Government of India (GoI) and one or more States, or

  • GoI & any State or States on one side and one or more States on the other, or

  • Two or more States, if it involves a question - of law or fact - on which depends the existence or extent of a legal right.

The Supreme Court has also been conferred the power to issue directions or order or writs under Article 32 of the Constitution for the enforcement of any of the rights provided under Part III of the Constitution, including the Fundamental Rights. This is referred to as the Writ jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The writ jurisdiction of the Apex court under Article 32 is part of its original jurisdiction.

[For more details on Original jurisdiction kindly refer to Articles 32&131 of the Indian Constitution.]

Appellate jurisdiction refers to the power of the Apex court to hear appeals against any judgment, decree or final order (or sentence) of a High Court in a constitutional, civil or criminal case, where exists a substantial question of interpretation of

  • the constitution, or

  • a law of general importance

in case of a death sentence awarded in criminal matters.

However, an additional requirement is that the concerned High Court (HC) under Article 134A has to certify that the case in question is fit for an appeal to the SC.

The jurisdiction of SC also encompasses matters which fell within the jurisdiction of the Federal Court under any law just before the commencement of the Indian Constitution.

The Supreme Court can also grant special leave to appeal against any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order passed by any court or tribunal in the territory of India in any matter. The exception to this rule is the orders, judgments etc passed by any court or tribunal constituted by or under any law relating to the Armed Forces.

[The Appellate jurisdiction of SC can be read in more detail under Articles 132 – 136.]

Apart from the original, appellate and writ jurisdiction, the Supreme Court also has special advisory jurisdiction regarding matters referred to it by the President if India under Article 143 of the Constitution.

The Apex court also has the power and authority to review any order or judgment passed by it as well as transfer cases from one High Court to another or from the District Court of one state to the District Court of another State.


High Courts of India

The High Courts of India are the supreme judicial authority at the State level. There are currently 21 High Courts in the country and of these the oldest High Court of India is the Kolkata High Court, which was established in the year 1862.

Their powers and jurisdiction are similar to that of the Apex court, but with a few differences –

  • Any law declared or orders/judgments passed by them are not binding on the other High Courts (HCs) of the country or the subordinate courts which fall under the purview of the other HCs unless the other High Courts choose to follow such law or order or judgment.
  • Their territorial jurisdiction is varied.

The High Courts are the appellate authority for a State or group of States and get a lot of matters in appeal from the subordinate courts.

They have the power to issue writs, just like the Apex court, under Article 226 of the Constitution, but with one difference. While the Supreme Court has the power to issue writs to enforce only the rights provided under Part III of the Constitution, the High Courts can issue writs for enforcement of the rights under Part III as well as “for any other purpose”.

Just like in the case of the Supreme Court, the writ jurisdiction of the High Court is also part of their Original jurisdiction, since all writ petitions are filed directly before the High Court. Apart from writ petitions, any civil or criminal case which does not fall within the purview or ambit of the subordinate courts of a State, due to lack of pecuniary or territorial jurisdiction, can be heard by the High Court of that State. Also certain other matters or issues may be heard by the High Court as part of its original jurisdiction, if the law laid down by the legislature provides for it. For example, the company law cases fall within the original jurisdiction of the High Court.

Therefore, the High Courts’ work primarily consists of appeals from the lower courts as well as the writ petitions filed before it under Article 226.

The territorial jurisdiction of a High Court, as mentioned earlier, is varied.

Both the Supreme Court and the High Courts are courts of record and have all the powers associated with such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.


The Subordinate Courts

The District Courts are at the top of all the subordinate or lower courts. They are however under the administrative control of the High Court of the State to which the district court belongs to.

Their jurisdiction is confined to the districts they are responsible for, which could be just one or more than one. The original jurisdiction of the District Courts in civil matters is confined by not just the territorial limitations, but by pecuniary limitations as well. The pecuniary limitations are laid down by the legislature and if the amount in dispute in a matter is way above the pecuniary jurisdiction of the District Court, then the matter will be heard by the concerned High Court of that State.In case of criminal matters, the jurisdiction of the courts is laid down by the legislature.

The decisions of the District Courts are of course subject to the appellate jurisdiction of the High Courts.


Apart from these judicial bodies who enforce the laws and rules laid down by the legislature and executive and also interpret them (the Supreme Court & High Courts), there are numerous quasi judicial bodies who are involved in dispute resolutions. These quasi judicial bodies are the Tribunals and Regulators.

Tribunals are constituted as per relevant statutory provisions and are seen as an alternative forum for redressal of grievances and adjudication of disputes other than the Courts.

Some of the important tribunals are, Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), Competition Appellate Tribunal (COMPAT), Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT), etc.

The kind of cases the tribunals hear are limited to their specific area. That is TDSAT can hear only matters related to telecom disputes and not matters of armed forces personnel. So the area of operation of these tribunals are marked out at the beginning itself by the statute under which its constituted.

The same hold true for the various Regulators like – TRAI, DERC, etc. They regulate the activities of companies which fall under their purview as per the statute.


Thus, the Indian Judicial System is a mix of the Courts and the Tribunals & Regulators, and all these entities working together as part of an integrated system for the benefit of the nation.

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