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History of Legal Language

Legal history or the history of law is the study of how law has evolved and why it changed. Legal history is closely connected to the development of civilisations and is set in the wider context of social history. Among certain jurists and historians of legal process, it has been seen as the recording of the evolution of laws and the technical explanation of how these laws have evolved with the view of better understanding the origins of various legal concepts; some consider it a branch of intellectual history. Twentieth century historians have viewed legal history in a more contextualised manner more in line with the thinking of social historians. They have looked at legal institutions as complex systems of rules, players and symbols and have seen these elements interact with society to change, adapt, resist or promote certain aspects of civil society. Such legal historians have tended to analyse case histories from the parameters of social science inquiry, using statistical methods, analysing class distinctions among litigants, petitioners and other players in various legal processes. By analysing case outcomes, transaction costs, number of settled cases they have begun an analysis of legal institutions, practices, procedures and briefs that give us a more complex picture of law and society than the study of jurisprudence, case law and civil codes can achieve


History comprises of the growth, evolution and development of the legal system in the country and sets forth the historical process whereby a legal system has come to be what it is over time. The legal system of a country at a given time is not the creation of one man or of one day but is the cumulative fruit of the endeavor, experience, thoughtful planning and patient labour of a large number of people through generations.

With the coming of the British to India, the legal system of India changed from what it was in the Mughal period where mainly the Islamic law was followed. The legal system currently in India bears a very close resemblance to what the British left us with. As per the needs of the changing times changes and amendments were made, but the procedure which is followed not has its roots in the era of British-India. Little did the traders of the English East India Company while establishing their trade in India know that they would end up establishing their rule for about 200 years here. But the evolution of law as it is today did not come about in one go altogether. It was the Presidency Towns individually that were first affected by this change in hands of the governance of India after which the steps towards amalgamation of the judicial system were taken by the Charters of 1726 and 1753. To improve upon this, under the Regulating Act of 1773 Supreme Courts in the Presidency Towns and then under the Act of 1798 the Recorder’s Courts at Madras and Bombay were established. These were ultimately replaced by the establishment of the High Courts under the Act of 1861, which are still running in the country. It was only after independence in 1950 that the Supreme Court was established. Reforms and codifications were made in the pre and post independence eras and are still continuing. Thus law, as we know today has evolved through a complex procedure which is discussed in detail herein below.

Ancient Period

India has a golden history of over 5000 years. Therefore a comprehensive study of Indian legal history comprises of the historical process of development of legal institutions in Hindus and Muslim periods.

Pre-Mughal Era

The various sources of law relied upon by the kings at that time were shrutis, smritis, puranas, dharmasutras, dharmashastras, etc. The Arthashastra and Manusmriti were influential treatises in India, texts that were considered authoritative legal guidance. Ancient India represented a distinct tradition of law, and had a historically independent school of legal theory and practice. The political structure in the Vedic Period consisted of kingdoms, each tribe forming a separate kingdom. The basic unit of political organization was the kula (family). A number of kulas formed a grama (village), Gramani being the head. A group of gramas formed a vis (clan) and a number of vis formed the jana (tribe). The leader was Rajan (the Vedic King). The king (raja) was the supreme head of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. The members of the council of minister could give advice to the king, but final decisions were left to the king. The ministers and other officials were directly appointed by the king. The sabha and the samithi were responsible for the administration of justice at the village level. According to Brihaspati Smiriti, there was a hierarchy of courts in Ancient India beginning with the family Courts and ending with the King. The lowest was the family arbitrator. The next higher court was that of the judge; the next of the Chief Justice who was called Praadivivaka, or adhyaksha; and at the top was the King’s court. Early in this period, which finally culminated into the creation of the Gupta Empire, relations with ancient Greece and Rome were not infrequent. The appearances of similar fundamental institutions of international law in various parts of the world show that they are inherent in international society, irrespective of culture and tradition. 

Mughal Era

The ideal of justice under Islam was one of the highest in the Middle ages. The administration of justice was regarded by the Muslim kings as a religious duty.

Sources of Islamic Law are divided into Primary and Secondary Sources. Quran is the first and the most important source of Islamic law. It is believed to be the direct words of God as revealed to Muhammad through angel Gabriel in Mecca and Medina. Muslim jurists agree that the Quran in its entirety is not a legal code. Sunna is the traditions or known practices of Prophet Muhammad, recorded in the Hadith literature. Quran justifies the use of Sunna as a source of law.

Ijma and Qiyas are the secondary sources of Islamic law. There are 72 Muslim sects in all with the Shia sect being the most popular in India

Under the Moghal Empire the country had an efficient system of government with the result that the system of justice took shape. The unit of judicial administration was Qazi.  Every provincial capital had its Qazi and at the head of the judicial administration was the Supreme Qazi of the empire (Qazi-ul-quzat). Moreover, every town and every village large enough to be classed as a Qasba had its own Qazi. .During this period, the personal laws of the non-Muslims were applied in civil matters, but the criminal law was the Islamic in nature. Whenever there was a conflict between Islamic Law and sacred laws of the Hindus, the former prevailed.

Medieval Period

Period between 1600-1726

The charter of 1600 established the English East India Company in India. as per the charter of 1661 the English and the Indians residing under the Company came under its jurisdiction.

From the period ranging from 1661 till 1726, laws of equity and justice in conformity with the laws in England were followed. There was no codified law.

In Calcutta, the judicial system was based on the Company’s authority as a zamindar. This continued till the charter of 1726 was passed. Before Madras attained the position of a Presidency in 1665 it had two courts namely, the Choultry Court and the Court of the Agent and Council.

By the charter of 1668 the Company was conferred powers to make laws for the island of Bombay. From this period till the passing of the Charter of 1726, there were civil and criminal courts in these presidencies. In madras, there was the choultry court, the mayor’s court and the admiralty court as well. On the other hand, in Bombay till 1726 judicial systems were not stable and kept changing. Earlier there were courts like the Court of Judicature (1672) which dealt with civil and criminal cases and matters of probates and testaments, and a Court of Conscience to decide petty cases.

There was a system of appeals as well. In madras the appeals from the Mayor’s Court were filed to the Governor and Council. On the other hand, Bombay had Deputy-Governor and Council as its appellate Court. In Bombay this system elapsed due to lack of independence of the judiciary. In the following judicial system of Bombay an admiralty court was established with a Judge-Advocate as its head. This court apart from its existing powers enjoyed civil and criminal jurisdiction. Later a court of Judicature was established under this system after which the Admiralty Court lost its ground. The Admiralty court in Madras also became irregular by this time. Another system came about in 1718 in Bombay and this gave representation to the Indians as well by appointing 4 Indian Judges, known as Black Justices, in the Court.

Charter of 1726

In the subsequent years the Charter of 1726 was passed which granted special powers to the Company as was requested by it. Under this Charter the Mayor’s Court was established. This superseded all the other courts of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. This was a court of record.

The Laws under this Charter were also applied in conformity with the laws in England on the principles of equity and justice. Appeals from this court could be filed in the court of Governor and Council and further in the court of King-in-Council in England.

Requisite independence was assured to the Mayor’s Courts but this along with their strict adherence to English laws became the cause of some difficulties like hostility between the Mayor and the Governor and Council, and non clarity regarding jurisdiction of the Mayor’s Court in respect of the natives. The judiciary did not possess expert staff for administering justice and the executive did not have respect for the judiciary

This system remained suspended while the French had occupied Madras which they later surrendered in 1749. Then the Charter of 1753 was passed in order to remove the difficulties of the preceding Charter.

This charter put the Mayor under the subjection of the Governor and Council in order to avoid disputes between the two. Suits and actions between the natives were expressly excluded from the jurisdiction of the Mayor’s Court unless both parties submitted them to its determination, and a Court of Requests was created to hear small civil cases. The defects of this Charter can be summarized by mentioning the executive ridden judiciary, failure of impartial judgment, judiciary suffering from lack of legal knowledge, limitation of the jurisdiction of the Courts to Presidency Towns, and no representation of Indian Judges as opposed to earlier provisions in some courts in Bombay.

The Company’s financial break-down was the immediate cause for the enforcement of the Regulating Act of 1773. Section 13 of the Act provided for the establishment of a Supreme Court at Calcutta. The court, also a court of record with the power to punish for its contempt, had civil, equity, criminal, ecclesiastical and admiralty jurisdiction. Appeals against decisions of this Court and through the Court could be filed in all civil and criminal cases respectively before the King-in-Council. The establishment of this Court was a welcome as it was the first British Court in India consisting of lawyers, its jurisdiction was so wise that it covered all kinds of legal wrongs and that since all British subject came under its jurisdiction it ensured rule of law.

The Act of Settlement 1781 aimed at removing the ambiguities created by the former Act, but was not successful in its entirety.  With the increase in activities of the Company an urgent need of a lawyer-judge was felt to deal with new cases. The Charter in 1798 did the needful by establishing the Recorder’s Court at Madras and Bombay. This Court had similar jurisdiction and was subject to the same restrictions as the Supreme Court of Calcutta. In 1801 and 1824 Supreme Courts were established in Madras and Bombay respectively. The Constitutional powers, functions, limitations and jurisdiction of these courts were the same as that of the Supreme Court at Calcutta. A parallel system of judiciary was running in the mofussil areas. The Company attained the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa in 1765. As per the plan of 1772 under Warren Hastings, the Courts of Original Jurisdiction were Mofussil Faujdari Adalat, the court of criminal jurisdiction; Mofussil Diwani Adalat, the court of civil jurisdiction and Small Cause Adalat. Under the Appellate Courts we had Sadar Nizami Adalat, the criminal court of appeals; Sadar Diwani Adalat, civil court of appeals. The Collectors started monopolizing the trade in the districts putting the end to this system and giving rise to a new plan of 1774.

Under this system, diwan or amil, acted as the judge of the Mofussil Diwani Adalat. The Mofussil areas of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were divinded into six districts with a Provincial Council in each district acting as the Appellate Court. The Council started creating difficulties and monopolizing trade within its jurisdiction. This led to an end of this plan as well and a new plan of 1780 was formulated. This plan separated the executive from the judiciary. Provincial courts were left with the function of collecting land revenue only. For civil cases, a Diwani Adalat was established from which appeals went to the Sardar Diwani Adalat. Though this system assured the independence of the judiciary there were certain set-backs.

For the administration of criminal justice in a more efficient manner Warren Hastings drew a scheme in 1781 under which for apprehending criminals, Judges of the Mofussil Diwani Adalats were authorised to work as Magistrates and a department headed by the Remembrance of criminal Courts was opened to look after the working of the said courts.

The Governor –General Lord Cornwallis (1786-1793) introduced changes in the judicial system in 1787, 1790, and 1793. He had thoroughly reorganized the civil and criminal judicial system in India in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. He for the first time introduced the principle of administration according to law.

In 1787 he merged the revenue collection and power to try the revenue disputes in the same hands of the magistrate who formed the Mal Adalat. Appeals from the Mal Adalat had to go to the Governor General.

In the year 1790 the policy of 1787 was annulled. Cornwallis took a great step to improve administration of justice in the Mofussil by reforming the criminal law. The scheme had three limbs: at the lowest were the magistrates in the district, then the courts of circuits, and ultimately there was the Sadar Nizamat Adalat at Calcutta (initially at Murshidabad). Sadar Nizamat Adalat, put under the control of Governor-General and his Council, was being assisted by the Muslim law officers who were to expound the law. But later he brought reforms to the plan in year 1793 and introduced the most famous plan of the history.

According to this plan the Supreme Court was divested of all its powers except for the power of appeal and the Collector was to be given civil as well as revenue cases. Executive was estranged from the judiciary in its entirety. He introduced professional lawyers or vakeels in the courts to appear on behalf of the parties to contest their case in order to increase efficiency. Cornwallis did everything on structural and procedural side but he could not do much to reform the substantive law, particularly the criminal law which ‘was based on Muslim law and suffered from a number of defects’.

Modern period

Pre Independence

The year 1861 also constituted a conspicuous landmark in the process of development of legal and judicial institutions in India. It was during this year that the steps were taken to establish High Courts at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. These High Courts were not only better instruments of justice than the preceding courts, but also represented the amalgamation of the hitherto existing two disparate and distinct judicial systems, the Company’s Courts in the Provinces of Bengal, Bombay Madras, and the three Supreme Courts(established by the Royal Charter) in the Presidency town.

The High Court enjoyed the same power over all persons and estates. It had ordinary original, appellate and extraordinary original jurisdiction in civil cases whereas extraordinary and appellant jurisdiction in criminal cases. While exercising ordinary original jurisdiction the Courts were to apply the law of equity of the corresponding Supreme Court. In extraordinary original jurisdiction, the Courts applied the law of the corresponding local court, whereas in case of appellate jurisdiction the Courts applied the law of the court of original case filing. Acting as the court of appeal, reference or revision in Criminal cases, the courts applied the Indian Penal Code. The High Courts were empowered to make rules and orders for regulating all its proceedings in civil matters. By the subsequent charters High Courts were formed in Allahabad (1875), Patna (1912), Lahore (1865) etc.    The King, in the capacity of the being regarded as the fountain of justice in English legal system, could hear any petition filed by a party with respect to any matter with the help of the Privy Council. This was later, exercised by the King in the form of appeals and not otherwise. Appeals from India could be filed as of right or with the special leave of the Privy Council. After the mutiny of 1857 the Company’s Government came to an end and the administration of the country was placed in the hands of the Crown through the Secretary of State for India. For this purpose the Indian Councils Act, 1861 and 1892 were passed. But these Acts were not enough to satisfy the growth and organized demand for self-government by the Congress. Thus came about the Morley Minto Reforms in the year 1909 with its most important aspect being the increase of the representative element in the Legislative Councils and the extension of their powers. But the defects such as lack of true representation, etc led to the passing of the Government of India Act in 1919 which emphasized maximum autonomy to provinces with the target of achieving self-government. The dissatisfaction of this led to the Government of India Act, 1935 which aimed to establish federalism.  A Federal Court set up in Delhi was established under this Act. It is believed that out of all the institutions set up under the Act; this was proved to be the most successful in operation. The Court was to consist of Chief Justice and not more that six judges. This Court had original, appellate, and advisory jurisdiction. The Court had exclusive original jurisdiction in all disputed between the federation and the units or between the units inter se. An appeal could go to the Privy Council without leave, against the Judgements of the Federal Court given in its original jurisdiction and in any other matter with the leave of the Privy Council or of the Federal Court.

In the matter of the laws to be applied the very idea of a single omni-competent legislative body in India had been mooted in 1829 by the Governor–General, Lord William Bentick. Administrators at that time wanted to secure uniformity of law throughout the country and that was unattainable with three co-extensive legislative powers existing in the country. Charter of 1833 helped to receive the object desired. Under this the Governor–General of Bengal, nominated as Governor-General of India, proposed a uniform All India Legislation and thereby created a Legislative Council. The laws made by the Council were applicable on all persons and courts. It had Lord Macaulay appointed as its first Law Member whose powers were increased by the Charter of 1853. The creation of new council at Calcutta caused the centralization and concentration of power depriving the Councils of Bombay and Madras of their law-making powers.   An important step towards fulfilling the goal of securing a uniform and simple system of law in India through the process of integration of the general system of codes was taken by the Charter Act of 1833. Section 53 provided for the appointment of a Law Commission in India, subsequently forming the first commission of India with its members appointed by the Governor-General. The commissions’ most noteworthy contribution was the Penal Code prepared under the guidance of the Macaulay. The Commission then drew its attention to the complaint of the non- Hindu and non- Muslims and thus passed the lex loci report in 1837. The report proposed an Act making a declaration that except for Hindus and Muslims all others in Mofussil were to be put under English substantive Law to the extent that it suited the Indian conditions.

The Second Law Commission, formed in 1853 submitted two reports, one dealing with reforms of the judiciary and the other with the reforms of law. It recommended the amalgamation of the Sadar Adalats and the Supreme Court in all the presidencies and the adoption of uniform civil and criminal procedure codes.

The proposals of the first two Commissions resulted in the codification of the Code for civil and criminal cases in the year 1857 and 1861 respectively and the enactment of the Penal Code in 1860. The Limitation Act and the High Courts Act were passed in 1855 and 1861 respectively. The Third Law Commission proved to be the most successful of all the Commissions. It drafted several codes in its seven reports, the important ones being Indian Succession Act, Contract Act (1872), Evidence Act, the new Limitation Act and the Divorce Act 1869. Interestingly, the Government at this time was also considering the preparation of the Law Digest of cases. But it ended abruptly due to the dispute amongst its members. 

Many branches of law had been ascertained by now but certain were still un-codified resulting in great deal of complexities. To this, Lord Salisbury recommended the formation of a small body to codify the remaining laws and it resulted in the codification of the Transfer of Property Act, the Easement Act, the Trusts Act and revision of the existing Codes.

With the expiry of the Fourth Commission, there came an end of a large scale codification undertaken by the British Government. They had successfully enacted the necessary laws to suit the pressing needs of the country. 

Post Independence

The Indian Constituent Assembly passed the Abolition of Privy Council Jurisdiction Act in 1949 to abolish the jurisdiction of the Privy Council in respect of appeals from India and also to provide for pending appeals.   The present day judicial system in India is quite complicated. It consists of a Supreme Court at its top, High Courts in the middle and the Subordinate Courts at the bottom. On January 26, 1950, the Federal Court gave way to the Supreme Court (inaugurated on January 28, 1950) under the new Constitution and thus began an exciting new era in Indian Legal History. The Supreme Court, highest court of the land enjoys a very wide jurisdiction. Under Article 131 of the Constitution the Supreme Court has an exclusive original jurisdiction in cases arise from the centre and the constituent States or between the States inter se. The Court even has appellate jurisdiction in case of appeals from its lower courts. Under article 32 of the Constitution the Court can issue directions, orders or writs for enforcement of the fundamental rights granted to the people. The President in case of matters related to public importance or treaties etc even seek the advice of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is a court of record and it has the power to review its decisions. It consists of the Chief Justice and twenty five other Judges appointed by the President of the country. The present Chief Justice is S.H.Kapadia..   Second in the hierarchy come the High Courts. As mentioned above the first High Court in the country was formed under the Act of 1861. But after independence the High Courts have also become the courts of record with appellate and original jurisdiction. They have been conferred the power to issue writs. The High Courts have superintendence over all the courts within its territorial jurisdiction. The decisions of the High Courts become precedents and are followed by the courts subordinate to it. Each State has its own High Court and a common High Court for two or more States can also be made.   With respect to Subordinate Courts, the Judges are appointed by the Governor and is controlled by the corresponding High Court. Nyaya Panchayats are the judicial component of the Panchayat system and are the lowest ring of our judiciary. Their composition and power differs from State to State. They have jurisdiction over petty civil and criminal cases.                                  Our people did not have much say in the formation and reformation of our law during the British Period. But soon after independence Dr. Hari Singh Gaur moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly recommending the establishment of a statutory law revision committee. But later the resolution was withdrawn on the assurance of the then Law Minister, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar that a more suitable machinery, would be devised for revising law. This concern was raised time and again and finally a non-official resolution in this regard was moved in the Lok Sabha on 19th November, 1954. This resolution was also withdrawn after a statement by the then Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru which led to the then Law Minister Shri. C.C. Biswas announcing in the Lok Sabha the decision of the Government of India, to appoint a law commission, the membership and terms of reference. The commission, which was initially appointed upto 31st Decmeber 1956 and then extended from time to time upto 3oth September 1958, consisted of 7 members with Shri. M.C. Setalvad as its Chairman.  The Commission submitted fourteen reports in all, thirteen on statutes revision, whereas the fourteenth one running into two volumes relates to reform in judicial administration. The report was the result of a long questionnaire and deliberations held in different parts of the country.  One of the important recommendations of the Commission was of making Hindi as the common language throughout for all legal works and the regional languages for district and lower Courts.

The fifth report resulted in the British Statues Repeal Act, 1960 repealing 258 British Statutes. The Second Law Commission (post independence) was appointed in 1958 under the Chairmanship of Shri. T.L. Venkatarama Aiyer for a period of three years. The commission made important reports on law of hire-purchase and marine insurance. The third and fourth Law Commissions were under the Chairmanship of Shri. J.L. Kapur and submitted 16 reports and even drafted the Indian Post Office Act, 1898.   Various Commissions have so far produced more than 200 reports and currently the 18th Law Commission (2006-2009) chaired by Justice A.S. Lakshmanan is in vogue.


The societies in the beginning were rudimentary and so were the laws of the societies. Laws have grown with the growth of society. This establishes a relationship between law and society, where law is an instrument of social change, and as Pound would put it law must be stable, but it must not stand still. To comprehend, understand, and appreciate the present legal system adequately, it is necessary to acquire a back-ground knowledge of the course of growth and development of the legal history.  A peculiar feature of the legal development in India was that for long the government endeavored to create a system of courts without ever attempting to develop a body of law. Conscious efforts to remove these defects were made by developing a coherent body of law. But the coherent system of law was developed only after the process of codification. Law then became more territorial and resulted in the abridgment of the differences of law between the resulted in the application of uniform law throughout the country. The independence of the judiciary is fairly well assured by the constitution itself and adequate precautions have been taken to help the judiciary to discharge their functions effectively. Law in the country is now mostly codified and is uniform throughout the country and the objective is now to update, reform and bring the law in conformity with the new social conditions prevailing in the country . In conclusion, we may say that the Indian legal system provides all the machinery for the expansion and preservation of the law.  

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