Adalat system of courts and its evolution in India


Any nation’s judicial system is crucial to its administration. An effective government structure comprises of the three organs of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The independence of the judiciary is crucial when discussing it. The judicial system was run in line with Dharma or conventions prior to the founding of the East India Company. British people thereafter founded their own court, which is governed by their own laws. After its establishment, the judiciary underwent some changes to improve efficiency. Before India gained its freedom, the British built the numerous Adalat systems there.

The term “Mofussils” was coined to describe the areas that the British had taken control of after acquiring the Diwani rights to Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa in 1765. These areas encircled the presidency towns. In the presidential towns of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, which went by the names of Mayor’s court and Court of Governor-in-Council, there existed a well-established judicial system; nevertheless, the same was necessary in these neighbouring regions, which were to be named Mofussils.

They require a powerful administrative body for their administration to operate well, which is how the Adalat system was created. Adalat system primarily covers the civil and criminal realms. Additionally, this was divided into districts and towns. Warren Hastings’ judicial system was seen as ground-breaking for the time in Britain. Many of the improvements were implemented during his term in office. All of the tiny towns and districts, which were overseen by certain people, were included in the judicial system. Making the administration robust is the primary goal of establishing the Adalat system.

Establishment of Courts in India

A systematised administration is required to run the nation given the empire’s growth. So, in the presidency state, courts were established for administrative purposes (i.e. Madras, Bombay, Calcutta). The British invaded India for commercial reasons and established rules for the invasion. The court was presided over by Englishmen who lacked legal expertise. They made decisions based on common sense, which results in decision-making that is inconsistent. The following courts were created with the goal of strengthening the legal system:

Mayor court, 1687

Madras’s Mayor court was initially constituted by the Charter of 1687. which the East India Company created a corporation. An English mayor, 12 aldermen, and at least 60 burgesses make up this court. This court simultaneously handled the civil and criminal cases. Juries were used to decide criminal cases. The East India Company, not the monarch, set the rules for how this court operated, hence the Mayor’s decision lacks authority. The majority of judgments made by this court system were guided by the notion of natural justice, which includes fairness, justice, and morality. This led to the development of the principles of equity, justice, and morality in India.

Mayor court, 1726

Later, when English colonies grew along with trade, the mayor court was founded in the states with the remaining presidencies. The Mayor court, founded by the Charter of 1726, was responsible for administering Bombay and Calcutta. The new concepts of administration were developed under this charter. Under this system, the civil and criminal spheres were divided; the mayor handled civil cases with the assistance of nine aldermen, and the governor-in-council handled criminal cases. Here, the nominated individual received their authority directly from the English crown. Thus, everyone was required to abide by the decision they made. The Governor handled the criminal proceedings with the assistance of the grand jury. The penalties for committing such an offence included imprisonment, a fine, and the amputation of limbs.

Judicial system in Mofussils

Since Lord Clive and his predecessors had tolerated the oppression of Ryots by Zamindars and petty tyrants, which was proving to be harmful to the colonial administration in these areas, it was up to the then governor of Bengal presidency, Warren Hastings, to ensure that the Diwani rights were properly implemented after the colonial giant had achieved them. Warren Hastings introduced reformative judicial actions in light of this tainted system for the following reasons:

Connection between Revenue and judicial administration:

The administration of revenue was a crucial task for the British, not to mention a significant source of income. However, in order to collect revenue, it was necessary for there to be property in the provinces, and prosperity could only be maintained in the absence of chaos so that people would not be distracted from their occupations, especially those involved in agriculture. They would have been inspired to advance if there had been such calm, and eventually they would have been able to pay their taxes. Again, the maintenance of this peace and order rested on the safety of people and their property, which could only have been guaranteed in the presence of an effective legal system at the time.

No centralized judicial set up:

The Mughal empire’s fall and the Nawabs’ loss of influence in Bengal and the surrounding areas led to the collapse of the only system of justice that had ever existed, allowing everyone with local authority (such as Zamindars) to wield their judicial authority for selfish reasons. Now, the Kazis were chosen based on the amount of favour they showed to authorities rather than their character or ability. Because there was no system of checks and balances in place against them due to their lack of merit, they started abusing their position.

Corruption in the courts:

Furthermore, even these corrupt courts used to charge parties commissions on the money they were able to recover with the assistance of the court. This practise violated the fundamental idea of natural justice because it made judges profiteers from the cases they decided, making them parties to the cause they decided. This tactic was widespread due to the judges’ lack of interest or motive to operate impartially. They became accustomed to this bribe culture because they didn’t even before receive a regular salary. Arthur Keith emphasised the idea that “courts were more a tool of power than a tool of justice.”

Atrocities of Englishmen:

The English invasion exacerbated the already poor state of the legal system. Any Indian whose land or property the company servants had any sort of claim against in the past was subject to seizure. They also used to imprison such Indians, holding them captive until the claims or debts were settled. When doing so, the company servants did not even bother to ask the officers of the Nawab’s Government, who at the time were too helpless and were therefore forced to ignore such disagreements, for their assent.

Reforms done by Warren Hastings

Judicial Reforms of 1772

In 1772, Warren Hastings introduced a system of revenue administration and a judicial administration plan in response to the aforementioned conditions, laying the groundwork for India’s Adalat system. The land of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was divided into a number of districts under this arrangement, and an English servant of the company was appointed as the collector in each district, who was in charge of collecting taxes and exercising judicial authority.

Different courts in Adalat System: (in order of the hierarchy)

Small Cause Courts

Each village or pergunnah had one of these courts, which were meant to handle minor or trivial cases. Until a sum of Rs. 10, the judgments of these courts were considered final. The village headman or the chief farmer of the appropriate pergunnah presided over these courts.

Mofussil or district courts

Mofussil Diwani Adalat: – The revenue and civil matters, including those involving marriages, inheritance, caste, debts, contracts, disputed accounts, personal property, partnership, and rent demands, used to be handled by these courts, which were once located in every district. Previously, it had a monetary jurisdiction of up to Rs 500, making any judgements made by this court up to that sum binding. The district collector served as the court’s judge and collaborated with local law enforcement officials like the Kazis and Pundits. As the collector lacked knowledge of the personal laws of Muslims and Hindus that were to be applied to the many issues that were brought before the court, these law officers used to support the judge.

Mofussil Nizamat Adalat: – Fauzdari Adalats were another name for these courts. These courts were also established in every district, although they used to only handle criminal cases, unlike the mofussil Diwani Adalat. Additionally, it lacked the authority to hear cases involving death sentences or those that demanded loss of the accused’s property because those matters had to be brought before Sadar Diwani Adalat for final decisions. Only Muslim law enforcers presided over these courts. The Kazi and the Mufti used to issue Fatwas and deliver judgments in accordance with them, while the Maulvi used to explain the law. But in addition to these law enforcement officials, collectors also used to play a significant role in these courts as a supervisor. He once oversaw the impartiality of the verdicts, the regularity of the trials, and the attendance of all required witnesses.

Sadar or Provincial courts

Sadar Diwani Adalat: – This was the highest court in the province for civil cases. It used to have both appellate and original jurisdiction because it handled cases involving disputes worth more than Rs 500 in addition to hearing appeals from Mofussil Diwani Adalat. On each petition or appeal, 5% of the disagreement amount used to be charged. It was held in the presidential town of Calcutta and was presided over by the governor and his council. The inaugural meeting of it was held on March 17, 1773.

Sadar Nizamat Adalat: – This was the top court in the province for criminal proceedings. It once had both original and appellate jurisdiction, just like Sadar Diwani Adalat. As was already established, it used to have specific jurisdiction to decide on matters involving the death penalty and property confiscation. This Adalat prepared the death warrant in circumstances when it was necessary, and the Nawab as the head of the Nizamat was required to sign it. Daroga-I-Adalat, who once served as this court’s judge, presided over it. A Chief Kazi, a Chief Mufti, and three Maulvis helped him. There used to be a supervisory authority in the form of the Governor-in-Council who used to keep a check on how this court was operating, similar to Mofussil Nizamat Adalat. Originally situated in Calcutta, it was later moved to Murshidabad, the Nawab’s home, to lessen the effort required to obtain his signature in cases involving death sentences. Another later development was the creation of the Naib Nazim office, to which Mohd. Reza Khan was nominated and who was responsible for working and approving decisions on the Nawab’s behalf.

Miscellaneous provisions under the plan to promote impartial justice

All cases have to be heard in public settings where everyone could watch. This contributed to keeping the public’s faith in the justice system and ensuring that transparency was upheld. In addition to this, all district-level or lower-level Adalats were required to keep track of cases that were heard and determined so that the same may be transmitted to Sadar Adalats. This was a significant step that might have prevented judges from abusing their authority because they were constantly being monitored by the supreme courts and any wrongdoing on their part might have been exposed.

Introduction of new civil and criminal procedures and laws

After the plaintiff filed a petition of complaint, the defendant was required to respond. The Adalat then heard the parties viva voce and, if necessary, reviewed the evidence. This was a rough and quick system for considering civil matters. Only after all of this did the court issue a ruling. In addition, a new 12-year limitation period from the date of the conflict was introduced, meaning that any case filed after that point would be deemed time-barred. Our procedural codes still contain this clause. A system of arbitration was also established to support the civil court’s operations.

Regarding criminal procedure and laws, the emphasis was turned toward their introduction in order to outlaw dacoity and limit the use of mutilation as a form of punishment. Dacoity was extremely prevalent in the nation, thus stringent regulations were created to combat it. According to these regulations, a dacoit was required to be put to death after being found guilty, with the village also being punished and the dacoit’s family becoming state slaves. Warren Hastings was opposed to mutilation because he thought that doing so as a form of punishment put a criminal a lasting burden on society rather than benefiting him. However, because Muslim law enforcement officials were reluctant to break from the scriptures of Muslim law, these anti-mutilation laws remained just in writing and were not actually executed.

Appraisal of the plan

Given the constraints of the available resources, Warren Hastings achieved a commendable feat when the efficiency of the 1772 plan was evaluated. Given that the firm was still in its infancy, Sir John William Kaye had appropriately referred to him as “the Infant Administrator” because it was a significant accomplishment for the governor of Bengal to put such a system in place. This system was hailed for being fair, affordable, and easily accessible by the general population, who could avoid travelling to provincial courts and so save time and money.

The court fees that were to be paid to the government in place of the previous system of commission that the judges had previously extracted from the parties increased government revenue while simultaneously reducing the culture of bribery. With the implementation of the Adalat system, the Zamindars’ judicial authority was also destroyed, ending the persecution of the farmers.

Defects of the 1772 Plan

Insufficient number of courts at village level (small causes courts)

The number of small causes courts in rural areas was extremely low, and those that did exist only had financial jurisdiction over sums up to Rs. 10, which was sometimes too little. Due to inadequate transportation, a disagreement involving a somewhat larger sum had to be brought before district courts, which was once again expensive and time-consuming for the numerous residents of these locations.

Concentration of too much power in the hands of collector

Since the collector in the district used to be the administrator, tax collector, civil judge, and supervisor of criminal judicature, too much authority was concentrated in their hands, which resulted in the following problems:

  1. Participant in revenue cases: He was a party to the conflict because he was the civil judge and the tax collector, which was against the rule of justice.
  2. Carrying out their own private business: The collector also began engaging in their own private business because they were able to monopolise it through their position of authority for their personal gain, even if it came at the expense of others.
  3. Difficulty in supervision of collectors: Calcutta Council found it challenging to supervise and keep tabs on the collectors since they tended to be focused with their own business and because communication channels were inadequate.

Judicial Plan of 1774

Warren Hastings recognised the flaws in the Plan of 1772, but it was also the company director who requested that the governor and council remove the tax collectors and look for alternatives. As a result, the Calcutta government went on to implement a new plan for tax collection and judicial administration on November 23, 1773, and it came into effect in January 1774.

Features of Plan of 1774

Appointment of Amils/Diwans

The Amils or Diwans, who were appointed in each district, took the position of the collectors. He was to serve as the Mofussil Diwani Adalat’s judge and revenue collector.


Each division formerly had a number of districts under its control since the land of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa was divided into six divisions with headquarters at Calcutta, Murshidabad, Dinajpur, Dacca, and Patna. For instance, the entire state of Bihar fell under the Patna Division.

Provincial Councils

In each division, a Provincial Council made up of 4-5 covenanted corporate servants was established, with the following responsibilities:

  1. Overseeing revenue collection: They were tasked with overseeing Amil revenue collecting.
  2. Hear appeals from Mofussil Diwani Adalat: Previously, if a dispute concerned an item worth more than Rs. 1000, an appeal would be made to Sadar Diwani Adalat. As a result, it became possible to appeal any matter to the Provincial Council, regardless of its value, and a link was established between Mofussil Diwani Adalat and Sadar Diwani Adalat.
  • Court of first instance: A case that arose in the division town (headquarters) could be sent straight to these courts because they served as the court of first instance in the divisions where they were located. This court also possessed original jurisdiction. It turned out to be advantageous since a system of appeal was established close to district adalats, making it feasible to oversee the activities of district judges, which was not possible in the previous situation involving the governor and council.

Defects of the 1774 Plan

Similar to the collectors, the provincial council members had the potential to be nefarious and might have monopolised the trade in their area. In contrast to collectors, who were junior servants and subject to the governor and council’s control, these members used to be senior company employees with status on par with that of any member of the council. As a result of their clout and influence, the governor and council were unable to rein in their behaviour, which made them more distrustful than collectors. People who would be at the mercy of the Provincial Council would therefore be afraid to speak out against their unfair treatment.

Reforms by Impey

The non-compliance between commercial activity and judicial concerns was allowed by the council and administrative body. The collector did not have time to handle the judicial matters. Elijah Impey was thus chosen to serve as Sadar Diwani Adalat’s single judge. He made an effort to end the other official’s abuse of authority. He created 133 articles worth of rules to ensure the efficient operation of the judiciary. After that, it became known as the court’s civil procedure. He also made an effort to lessen judicial corruption. He was in charge of a separate executive and judicial branches of government.

Establishment of Supreme Court

The Regulating Act of 1773 was the legislation that created the Supreme Court. Accordingly, it is claimed that the court in question is the superior authority with royal authority. They obtained their authority straight from the Crown Order. One chief justice, three judges, and a barrister with five years’ experience make up this court. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was Sir Elijah Impey. In India, the writs jurisdiction was introduced for the first time.

Despite having the power to handle both civil and criminal cases, the criminal was subjected to severe punishment. In Calcutta, the First Supreme Court was formed as the recorder’s court. Maintaining justice in society was of paramount importance when the Supreme Court was established. British residents increased along with the growth of their commerce and enterprise. The Supreme Court of India was founded to handle the administration. With the approval of the crown, every regulation was approved. The report was required to be turned in to the state government by each Governor and Governor General.

However, even though Britishers profited from these rules, there were numerous administrative shortcomings, and the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction outside of Calcutta. Second, the rule-making decision-making process was overly drawn out. Third, the council and the governor frequently clashed. The Supreme Court’s judgement may occasionally be overturned by the council. The Supreme Court was also founded in Madras on 1800 and in Bombay on 1823. There was a need for the court to be established because both presidencies are made up of numerous districts. The Supreme Court has the authority to oversee the different personal laws, succession laws, and other laws.

High Courts in India

The Supreme Court was eliminated in India with the establishment of high courts. The Indian High Courts Act, 1861, established high courts. This act gave the crown the go light to build the High Courts in the capital city. The entire process was comparable to that of the Supreme Court. High courts were created solely to clear up any misunderstandings about Supreme Court and Council decisions. This court had a Chief Justice and no more than 15 other judges. Within the boundaries of Calcutta, the high court held original and appellate jurisdiction. It encompasses all of the British residential areas because it was founded on Calcutta’s territory. Because the British implemented reforms in line with the evolving situation, that period was specifically the beginning of the development of modern judiciary.

Developments of Natural Justice in India

The common law system in Britain upholds the three fundamental concepts of equity, justice, and good conscience, which make up the concept of natural justice. It was first made popular in India somewhere during the 17th and 18th centuries. The British implemented judicial reforms at that period. Personal laws conflict with one another. With such differences in the law, it is quite difficult for the English to administer justice. The idea of natural justice is founded on common sense, and judges were required to make their own decisions.

Every case the king handled prior to the creation of the British Empire was also based on similar principles. However, this approach began to thrive more after the British made changes to the judicial paradigm. Most often, courts rendered decisions based on fairness, justice, and good conscience when each personal law was missing a necessary provision. The idea of common law aids in minimising disputes between parties. Companies’ decisions must uphold the general principles of equity, justice, and good conscience when there is no adequate law in place.


It was claimed that the system was innovative. The governor general of Bengal made an effort to correct every small flaw. The Regulating Act of 1773, which resulted in the establishment of the Supreme Court with the goal of separating the judicial from the revenue administrations—which were closely related because the same officers frequently performed both the duties of revue collection and adjudication—also aided in the creation of the system. However, the separation goal was not met as expected, and a second attempt was made to address the shortcoming in the form of reorganisation.

The Provincial Councils, which had previously been tasked with both collecting taxes and dispensing justice, were now only responsible for tax collection and handling tax cases, with all judicial duties being returned to the diwan adalats that had been established in each of the Provincial Councils, namely Calcutta, Murshidabad, Dacca, Burdwan, Dinajpur, and Patna. The Provincial Councils, which had previously been tasked with both collecting taxes and dispensing justice, were now only responsible for tax collection and handling tax cases, with all judicial duties being returned to the diwan adalats that had been established in each of the Provincial Councils, namely Calcutta, Murshidabad, Dacca, Burdwan, Dinajpur, and Patna.

Even after this change, the Adalat system was unable to reach the level of perfection that Hastings had envisioned, but its existence was still commendable. The court system that exists now was further influenced by this structure.



Author: Arryan Mohanty,
Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur/Student

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