HIERARCHY OF THE COURTS IN INDIA


The court system in any country is a very important part of the judicial system in order to provide justice. Usually, any dispute between any parties goes to court with the hope that there they will be heard and will be provided with justice. It is very important to understand the hierarchy of the courts in order to understand which court to approach in order to seek an adequate remedy. 

Why it is necessary to understand the hierarchy in order to seek a remedy?
The courts decide their power on the matter in accordance with the power conferred to them, which is known as Jurisdiction of the Court. The hierarchy is based on the jurisdiction limit itself. 

Now the question arises that what is jurisdiction? Jurisdiction clearly means the official power to make legal decisions and judgments of a court or officer to which the power to adjudicate has been given.

Coming back to the previous question that why do we require to understand the hierarchy in order to seek a remedy? If the complaints registered in the wrong jurisdiction are decided by the court which holds power in that area, it leads to injustice with the parties to the suit and in order to quash the order another case is filed and so on which leads to increased case numbers in the court of law. Seeking remedy in the right jurisdiction leads to a solution to the problems to an extent and saves people from any misleading done on the basis of jurisdiction be it territorial or pecuniary. 

Before we start understanding the hierarchy of courts, we must understand the classification of courts which can be divided into two types:-
  1. Civil Courts
  2. Criminal Courts

There is a general classification in which there are two types of courts:-
  1. Civil Courts – As the law is divided into civil laws and criminal laws, the courts are also divided into civil courts and criminal courts based on which laws are being dealt with in the court matters.
  2. Criminal Courts – The matters relating to criminal law are dealt with in the criminal courts

Usually, this division in the courts is observed in the courts which are lower in the hierarchy.
  • Supreme Court – Supreme Court of India is the highest level of the court of the Indian judicial system which was established as per the provisions of Part V, Chapter IV of the Constitution of India which says that there will be a Supreme Court which will be the Apex Court of the Country. The concept of the Supreme Court as the Federal Court to play the role of the guardian of the esteemed constitution of India. The provisions related to the establishment of the Supreme Court, powers, composition, and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. This court has the power to be the highest court for the appellate courts. Composition of the Supreme Court – The posts of judges in the Supreme Court are 30+1 which consists of 30 posts for Judges and 1 post of Chief Justice of India. Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court – The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is divided into four heads:

Original Jurisdiction – The Supreme Court holds original jurisdiction in the matters such as a dispute involving the government of India v. two or more states, the dispute between Government of India and one or more states v. one or more states. Other than this the Constitution gives it exclusive Jurisdiction in the matters which comes by the way of Article 32.

Appellate Jurisdiction – This jurisdiction can be invoked when the parties are not satisfied with the decision of High Court or there is an error in the Judgment or any ignorance of fact or evidence which is material to the case in question. The appellate jurisdiction of the Court can be divided into four main categories of cases; Constitutional, Civil, Criminal and Special. 

(a) Constitutional Cases – According to Article 132(1) an appeal shall lay in front of the Supreme Court from any judgment, decree or final order of a High Court in the territory of India, whether in a civil, criminal or other proceedings, if the High Court certifies that the case involves a substantial  question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution. If the High Court refuses to give such- a certificate, the Supreme Court can grant special leave to appeal, if the Court is satisfied that the case involves a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution. This makes the Court the ultimate interpreter and savior of the Constitution. 

(b) Civil Cases – The Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction in civil cases is of a limited character. In civil matters after the passage of the 30th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1972 (where no constitutional question is involved), an appeal could lay in front the Supreme Court, if the High Court certified that any of the under-mentioned conditions were satisfied: 

    (i) That the amount or the value of the subject matter of the dispute is not less than Rs. 20,000,
   (ii) That the case is a fit one for an appeal to the Supreme Court irrespective of the value. It may be pointed out that the appellate jurisdiction of the Court in civil cases can be enlarged if Parliament passes a law to that effect. Further, if the court is hearing the appeal, it is open to any party to challenge a decision of the High Court as invalid so far as it deals with the interpretation of the constitution. 

(c) Criminal Cases – The Draft Constitution had made no provision for the appellate jurisdiction of the Court in criminal cases. Many members considered it a serious omission of the Constitution. Eventually, the provision was incorporated in the Constitution. There are only two modes by which appeals in the criminal matters lie from the decision of a High Court to the Supreme Court, i.e.,

    (i) Without a certificate of High Court;
         An appeal lies to the Supreme Court without a certificate, if:
 >The High Court has reversed an order of acquittal of an accused and sentenced him to death.
 >If the High Court has withdrawn for trial before itself any case from any court subordinate to its authority and has in such a trial convicted the accused person and sentenced him to death.
    
   (ii) With a certificate of the High Court. 
 >An appeal lies to the Supreme Court from a decision of High Court in criminal proceedings, if the High Court certifies that the case is a fit one for an appeal to the Supreme Court. Parliament can, by further passing an Act, extend the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in criminal matters.

(d) Special Appeals or Special Leave Petition (Article 136) – In any legal system, there is a hierarchy of courts and tribunals at different levels. After a judgment has been passed by a court lower in a hierarchy, any party, unsatisfied or aggrieved by the outcome may go in for an appeal in the appellate court; which in India is generally a High Court. However, if any of the parties are unsatisfied by the appellate court’s decision, a further appeal can be made to the Supreme Court of India. The guidelines for these appeal processes are provided by Articles 132 to 136. There is a special class of appeals, which may not follow the general hierarchy of the courts and tribunals. Article 136 of the Indian Constitution, allows the Supreme Court to grant special leave to appeal against any judgment or order in any matter or case, made by any court or tribunal in the country. The Supreme Court is vested with the absolute power of interpretation of the constitution being the ultimate guardian of it.

SLP can be filed against any judgment of the High Court within 90 days from the date of the judgment. However, there is flexibility at the discretion of the SC. Or it can be filed within 60 days against the order of the HC refusing to grant the certificate of fitness for appeal to SC. 

(e) Writ Jurisdiction – Under Article 32, the Supreme Court can entertain an application for the issue of a constitutional writ for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights. This is termed as original jurisdiction as the aggrieved party can move the Apex court directly through a petition instead of coming through a High Court by way of an appeal. The jurisdiction under the article is not analogous to that of under Article 131.

(f) Advisory Jurisdiction – According to Article 143, (i) the President of India is empowered to refer to the Supreme Court any question of law or fact of public importance. There is no constitutional compulsion for the Court to give its advice. Under section (2) of Article 142, the President is empowered to refer to the Supreme Court for its opinion, disputes arising out of any treaty, agreement, etc., entered into or executed before the commencement of the Constitution. In such cases, it is obligatory for the Court to give its opinion to the President. The treaties, agreements, etc., referred to above, are those which the Government of India have executed with the former princely states and their rulers between 1947 and 1950.


  • High Courts – The High Courts are at the second level in the hierarchy of the court system. High courts are instituted as constitutional courts under part VI, chapter V, Article 214 of the Indian Constitution which states that every state shall have one High Court but the parliament has the power to constitute one high court for two or more states as well and even it has the power to extend the jurisdiction of any High Court in order to include or exclude any Union territory and the parliament can also establish High Court for Union Territory as well. Jurisdiction of the High Courts can also be broken into 3 heads.


(a) Original Jurisdiction – The high court holds the original jurisdiction in matters such as suits, arbitration petitions, company petitions (under the old Companies Act) and other civil matters are heard by the single bench judge in the High Court itself over the territorial jurisdiction. 

High Courts at Delhi, Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta have original jurisdiction over criminal trials, other courts only hear appeals and writs.

(b) Appellate Jurisdiction – Appellate jurisdiction in relation to the High Court refers to the power of the High Court to review the decisions of Lower courts. The High Court is the highest court of appeal in the state. It has appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases.

    (i) In civil cases, an appeal can be made to the High Court against the decisions of the District Judges and the Subordinate Judges. 
    (ii) Again, when any court subordinate to the High Court decides an appeal from the decision of an inferior court, a second appeal can be made to the High Court only on the question of law and procedure
    (iii) Besides, appeal from the decision of a single Judge of the High Court itself also lies to the High Court. In criminal cases appeals against the decisions of:   
       >A Sessions Judge or an Additional Sessions Judge, where the sentence is of imprisonment exceeding 7 years; or
      >Assistant Sessions Judge, Metropolitan Magistrate or other Judicial Magistrates in certain specified cases other than ‘petty’ cases can be made to the High Court.

(c) Writ Jurisdiction  The High Court has been empowered to issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, and prohibition certiorari and quo warranto for the enforcement of the fundamental rights and ‘for other purposes’. The Supreme Court can issue the writs only for the enforcement of fundamental rights and not for other purposes. The power of the High Court to issue writs in the nature of habeas corpus cannot be curtailed even during an emergency. Art 226 provides that notwithstanding anything in article 32 every High Court shall have power, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or writs.

  • District and Sessions Courts – The district and sessions court is the court which is considered to be the lowest in the hierarchy of the court system which is not true in every district. District and sessions court is the court for dealing with criminal matters.
  • District Court and Additional District Judges – The district Court and Additional District judges deal with the matters relating to civil law which is further divided into property disputes, family disputes, contract disputes, etc. 
  • Civil Judges and Metropolitan Magistrate – These are the lowest courts in the hierarchy which deals with the matters at the very starting stage. 

As we have discussed the hierarchy of the courts in a descriptive manner so now it is the time to know some basic things about the parties. Many of us mistake in identifying the parties and use wrong terms for them. At different stages parties are known by different names, some of them are:-

Plaintiff – The party who files the complaint for the first time.

Vs.

Defendant – The party against whom the complaint is filed.



Appellant – The party who goes into appeal against the order passed by the lower court.

Vs.

Respondent – The party against whom the appeal has been filed.



Petitioner – The party who files the petition.

Vs.

Respondent – The party against whom the petition has been filed.

Plaintiffs can be at lower courts, high courts, or Supreme Court as per the jurisdiction of the matter. Appellants are at superior courts such as District Courts, High Courts or Supreme Court as per the Hierarchy. Petitioners can be only at either High Courts or Supreme Court.

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