Administration of Justice in Calcutta presidency before 1726

Administration of Justice in Calcutta presidency before 1726


In 1690, few Englishmen under the leadership of Job Charnock landed at Sutanati on the banks of river Hooghly which led to the foundations of the Calcutta presidency. A fortified factory called Fort William was subsequently constructed in this region. In 1699, Calcutta became a Presidency and a President/ Governor and Council were appointed to administer the settlement of the state. The East India Company secured a legal and constitutional status within the framework of the Moghul administrative machinery because of the strategic acquisition of the Zamindari. The Company as a Zamindar became entitled to all the functions and powers within the zamindari territory. 


Zamindar’s Judicial Powers

During the Moghul Empire, the zamindars of Bengal were duty-bound to collect land revenue and maintain law and order within their territory, even though they did not have any significant judicial power as such. The Kazi Court decided on criminal and civil cases, wherein every Sarkar (district), in each Parganah was assigned a Kazi. The judicial system was simple and took care of the needs of its people during this time. The village panchayats were effective in resolving all disputes in the village except those matters involving a heinous crime. The villagers were usually satisfied with the panchayat’s decision, in cases of appeal, the matter went to the Kazi of the Sarkar which would then go to the Chief Kazi of the Subah. Though the judicial system of the Moghuls was simple, it was not well organised as compared to the other departments. 

Kazis and Courts

The drop in the ranks of the Kazis came to be seen when the Moghul administration started disintegrating. The offices of the Kazis began to be leased to the highest bidder and were not assigned based on merit. The Kazi’s court in the countryside functioned in an extremely corrupt manner or did not function at all. Due to the absence of regular judicial tribunals in the countryside, the zamindars assumed their judicial power which they exercised in an arbitrary manner. The zamindars started administering justice in all matters but did not have the power to award capital punishment in any matter. Matters of appeal went to the Nawab courts in Murshidabad. The judicial powers of the Zamindar started oppressing the common people as the Zamindars used to charge high fees for deciding cases. There was no definite body of law at this time, so judgments were given on a discretionary basis. The entire judicial system was corrupt and impartial, the purpose of administering justice was neglected. 

Nawab’s Court


The Nawab court was theoretically the highest criminal court as the Nawab was the head of the Nizamat making him responsible for the maintenance of law and order by administering justice in criminal matters. The Nawab with due course of time also started functioning like the Kazi court. The Darogah- Adalat- al – Alia, the Nawab deputy in the court began to exercise the functions of the Nawab’s judicial function. 


The Diwan (head of the Diwani) was the highest court in civil cases. The Daroga- i- Adalat Diwani, deputy of the Diwan came to exercise the judicial functions of the Diwan in civil and revenue cases. Though the Court of Nawab was a criminal court there was no proper demarcation as such, so the court also used to undertake property related issues. 

In addition to these courts, there were other local officers who had used to exercise limited judicial powers within the town. Inheritance and succession claims, as well as marital disputes, were handled by the Kazi. Mufti, a qualified jurist, assisted the Kazi in carrying out his judicial duties. The duty of the faujdar was to suppress severe crimes, while the kotwal was in charge of small criminal matters. The Mohtassib was in charge of alcoholism, liquor sales, and the inspection of fake weights and measures. While the semblance of a functioning court system was preserved, the administration of justice in Bengal was in very poor shape in practice.


The Company entrusted the duty of revenue collection to an English officer, known as the collector or Zamindar who used to be a member of the Governor’s Council. The Zamindar was responsible for the collection of revenue from the tenants of the zamindari land.  The Zamindar was assigned to carry out all the Zamindari functions of the territory he was entrusted with and was additionally given judicial powers in criminal, civil and revenue cases pertaining to the Indian inhabitants of the settlement. The Zamindar decided cases without a jury based on his discretion.  The Zamindar also adjudicated matters concerning petty crimes committed by Englishmen. Serious crimes committed by any Britisher were tried by the Governor and Council under the Charter of 1661. Matters of appeal in criminal and civil cases would go to the Governor and Council.


The features of the judicial system show that from the very beginning, the Company’s representatives at Calcutta asserted and exercised more powers than what was actually assigned to them as a Zamindar. Thus, from the very beginning, the Company wanted to be the territorial sovereign at Calcutta because of which it tried to exclude the Nawab’s authority from the governance and administration of Calcutta. 


The judicial system at Calcutta was extremely rudimentary and was not at all conducive to the impartial administration of justice. All judicial powers were concentrated in the hands of a single individual i.e the Zamindar/ collector. He was primarily responsible for the collection of revenue from the Zamindari land, however, he was also delegated the functions and powers of adjudication in all cases of criminal, civil and revenue matters. As a result, the legal system was quite basic, inadequate and ineffective. This form of Judicial system continued till 1727 when it was replaced by the Charter of 1726. Until the new Charter, the judicial system was based on the company’s authority as a Zamindari. After 1727, the system derived its authority from the Royal Charter. 

Author: Prarthana Vasudevan,
Christ (Deemed to be University), 2nd year B.A. L.L.B

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