Judicial Reforms by Lord Cornwallis

Judicial Reforms by Lord Cornwallis


Lord Cornwallis was a British officer, diplomat and civil administrator. He was appointed in February 1786, to serve as governor general as well as the commander- in- chief of British India. He was known for laying the foundation of British Raj in India. He also brought in a lot of administrative and judicial reforms which changed the management practices and administrative system here. Lord Cornwallis succeeded Warren Hastings as the governor general of India. Under his guidance the Cornwallis code was introduced which contained judicial, policing and civil administrative reforms.

He was also raised to the title of Marquess Cornwallis after his performance in the third Anglo-Mysore War where he had managed to extract some valuable and significant concessions from the then ruler, Tipu Sultan. Lord Cornwallis set up a Sanskrit college also in Benaras for Hindus and this is today the Government Sanskrit College in Benaras.

He introduced the permanent settlement system under which the Zamindars were made the owners of the land and the farmers had to pay the revenue to the Zamindars. The zamindars had the right to evict the farmers at any given point of time. Under this system the zamindars had to pay at least 89% of the revenue to the government and the rest they could keep for themselves.


Lord Cornwallis brought in a lot of Judicial reforms like the number of districts in Calcutta was reduced from 36 to 23. A collector was also appointed to collect revenues and also decide matters pertaining to revenue and deal with such cases. The district courts were also headed by a collector and were also given magistral powers by which they could also handle criminal cases. In 1787, under Lord Cornwallis, registrar courts were also established which was under the control of a Registrar. The Registrar was given the authority to decide revenue-based cases upto Rs 200.

Later in 1790, further changes were made in the administration of criminal justice. Districts were divided into 4 parts – Dacca, Patna, Calcutta and Murshidabad. The Faujdari Courts which were district level criminal courts, were removed and a circuit of courts set up in these four parts. The post of Nawab was also abolished and instead matters were handled by the governor general of India. There was a fixed salary of all judges of the court to establish control of corruption. Court fees were also introduced which was applicable to the pleaders in the court. He also established a feedback method via a questionnaire to know the opinion of the magistrates of the current justice system.

The main defects of the 1790 plan was that the magistrates were vested with a lot of powers which made them abuse it at times. Lord Cornwallis also was made aware through the questionnaire, that there were evils in the present criminal justice system which need rectification. The circuit system of courts were being burdened with a lot of cases which led to delay in the justice system.

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis brought in some reforms to rectify the earlier ones. Earlier, the collector was responsible for handling revenue as well as cases based on the same. In the new system, the collector was only responsible for handling the revenue. The Sadr Diwani Adalat was set up which was the apex court and was handled by the governor general of India. The council  were the judges of the court and their work was to supervise the lower courts and hear cases above Rs 1000. The system of court fees and mal adalats were also abolished. Legal education was given importance for the first time under Lord Cornwallis.


Lord Cornwallis was a governor who tried to bring in positive reforms for the people of India. He tried to uproot corruption by bringing in policies which were progressive. Even if all of them may not have been successful, he still made a significant impact in the Indian legal system.

Author: Vaishnavi Menon,
MIT WPU School of Law, 1st year

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