Supreme Court at Calcutta – Composition, Powers & Functions

Supreme Court at Calcutta – Composition, Powers & Functions

The Charter:

The Supreme Court at Calcutta was established at Fort William in 1773 by a Charter known as The Regulating Act of 1773. It replaced The Mayor’s Court at Calcutta and was India’s Highest Court in British India until 1862 where it was replaced by High Court of Calcutta by The Indian High Courts Act 1861. The Charter was passed by The King George of England as a Court of Record, with full power & authority to hear and determine all complaints about any crimes and also to entertain, hear and determine any suits or actions against any of His Majesty’s subjects in Bengal, Bihar and  Orissa.

The Court till 1782 claimed jurisdiction over any person residing in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This marked a period of conflict of powers and authority with The Supreme Court of Bengal. Finally, The Bengal Judicature Act of 1781 was passed which restricted the authority of The Supreme Court of Calcutta to people living in Calcutta and to those British Subjects who lived in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

Composition of Supreme court at Calcutta

The Supreme Court at Calcutta had the following Composition

  • One Chief Justice and three other people as Regular Judges.
  • The Judges had to be Barristers of England and must have at least five years of experience.

The following were the First Judges and Chief Justice

  1. Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice
  2. Stephen Caesar Le Maistre, Regular Judge
  3. John Hyde, Regular Judge
  4. Robert Chambers, Regular Judge
  5. Sir William Jones, Regular Judge
  6. Sir William Dunkin, Regular Judge

Jurisdictional Limits of the Supreme Court at Calcutta

The Supreme Court of Calcutta had the following Jurisdictional Limits

  • The Jurisdiction of the Court was only limited to the Calcutta Region
  • It could be extended to the people residing in the Bengal, Bihar and Orissa if they were either British/His Majesty’s subject.
  • It could also be extended to People directly/indirectly, employed by the company or are the under the services of His Majesty’s Subject.
  • People who voluntarily submits to the supreme court.
  • Cases where the value of limit did not exceed Rupees Five Hundred.

Features of the Supreme Court at Calcutta

The Supreme Court of Calcutta had the following Features

  • The Governor was raised to the Power of The Governor-General.
  • All the Military and Civil Powers were vested in The Governor-General.
  • The Governor-General of Calcutta presided over the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay.
  • The Judges could be tried at The King’s Bench in England.

Powers of the Supreme Court at Calcutta

The Supreme Court of Calcutta had the following Powers

  • Civil Powers: Limited to all people in Calcutta and it also extended to British Subjects residing in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
  • Criminal Powers: Limited to British People i.e. it could only try British Subjects in Criminal Matters, it could not try any of the native people.
  • Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction: The Supreme Court could issue probates of the bill for the British subjects who reside in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa for the British Subjects. It had the power to issue the letter of administration if no executioner of the will is present then it had the power to appoint an executioner. It also had the power to appoint the guardians of the infants and insane children
  • Admiralty Jurisdiction: The court had the power to try the civil maritime causes or the crime that has been committed upon the high seas. In these cases, A Petty Jury would sit to take the decision and crimes which takes place at offshore or on the ship at the offshore of the Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
  • Legislative Power: The Supreme Court was authorized to make his procedures and rules which would help it in exercising jurisdiction, but these rules were subject to the King-in-Council’s approval. The Governor-General and Council also had the power to make laws but that law should be registered under the Supreme Court along with it being reasonable. The law becomes effective only after being registered.

Advantages of the Supreme Court at Calcutta

Following were the advantages of The Supreme Court

  • It derived its powers directly from the Crown.
  • It had both Civil and Criminal Jurisdiction. The Rules were needed to be approved by The King-in-Council.
  • The Court fees were regulated to prevent over-charging. It had the power to appoint advocates to assist it.
  • It had the power to issue writs.
  • It also helped the Judiciary to Control the Executive.
  • The Judges of the Supreme Court were a professional lawyer.
  • The tenure was free from the wish of the Governor and the Company.
  • Judges and lawyer had adequate knowledge of English law and know how to apply the law in the case.
  • It had the power to try the company’s servant in both the civil and criminal cases.
  • The System of Judicial Review was also introduced.
  • The Supreme Court is The Court of Equity and The Court of Law.
  • It has The Admiralty Jurisdiction and The Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction at the same time.

Defects of the Supreme Court at Calcutta

Like any other Charter, even this Charter had its defects.

  • The legal relationship between The Governor-General, The Council and The Supreme Court was not defined.
  • The legal relationship between The Mofussil Adalat’s and The Supreme Court was not defined i.e., the hierarchy was not stated.
  • The Courts applied English Law in India
  • The Criminal Laws applied were way too strict/harsh to be suitable to the natives.

Famous Cases by Supreme Court at Calcutta

1. Raja Nand Kumar Case (1775)

  • This was the case which The Supreme Court of Calcutta faced under which Raja Nand Kumar, a man of power in Bengal, had brought a case against Lord Warren Hastings on charges of Corruption under which Lord Warren Hastings was found guilty and was asked to remit the amount received as bribery to The East India Company Treasury.
  • A few days later Mohan Prasad, bought a case against Raja Nand Kumar on account of forgery charges wherein he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
  • During the trial of Raja Nand Kumar, when cross-examination happened the defence collapsed and the application for grant of leave to The King-in-Council was also rejected.
  • This trial raised two serious questions on the efficiency of The British Justice System.
    1. Was Raja Nand Kumar Case under The Jurisdiction of Supreme Court. The Raja Nand Kumar was not a resident of Calcutta when the offence was committed.
    2. Is a person who is accused of just forgery be punished with a harsh sentence like a death punishment. How can British Law extend to Calcutta?

This case is also known as Judicial Murder.

2. The Patna Case (1777-1779)

  • This was the case under which Shahbaz Beg, a soldier in the Company’s army had no son and wanted to adopt his nephew Bahadur Beg and hand over his property to him, but died before he could do that and his widowed Begum sought the property as a gift from Shahbaz Beg.
  • Bahadur instituted a court case against the Begum.
  • The property was sealed and according to Muslim law Three-Fourths of the property went to the begum and One-Fourth went to Bahadur.
  • The Widow approached the Supreme Court and the verdict was given in her favour whereby it was ordered to grant her the full property and also a compensation of Rupees Three Lakh.

The issues with this case were as follows:

  • The legal relationship between the Adalat’s and The Supreme Court was questioned.
  • The Court Compensation was questioned as to on what basis was the compensation given?
  • The internal defects of The Judicial System came to limelight.

Author: Samar Jain,

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