This post is Part 1 of an article on the history of the Madras High Court compiled for Namma Chennai, the bilingual fortnightly.
The year 2012 is a landmark year in the annals of the city’s most venerated institution, The Madras High Court, which turns 150 years of age. This article is a tribute to this institution of justice.
The earliest form of administration of justice in Madras was the Choultry Court (akin to today’s Magistrate Courts), which existed probably since the time of its first settlement. This court administered justice to the Indian habitants. It was presided over by an “Adigar” and tried petty cases, both civil and criminal. One of the earliest cases after the formation of Fort St.George in 1639 was that of a murder, where a native man was accused of murdering a woman of the same caste. A trial of some sort took place and was reported to the local Naik, who commanded that justice had to be done as per the English Law. The accused was then hanged. Offences by British subjects in which Indians were not concerned were dealt with by the Agent in Council of Fort St.George. Records show that the post of Adigar was held by a Brahmin called Kannappa between 1644 and 1648, who had taken over from his father. However, he was ousted by President Baker, the first President of Fort St.George, who appointed Captain Martin and John Leigh to sit as magistrates during alternate weeks.
Then came the Charter of Charles II in 1661, which gave the East India Company authority over all forts and factories in the East Indies and empowered it to appoint Governors and other officers and authorized the Governor and the Council of a place to judge all persons living under them in all causes, civil or criminal, according to the laws of England and execute judgement. It was this Charter that Sir Edward Winter, Agent of Madras between 1661 and 1665 came armed with and appointed two prominent merchant natives, Timmanna and Verona (Kasi Veeranna) to rule the town. His successor, Sir George Foxcroft, the first to be nominated as the Governor of Madras, however dismissed them and gave judicial control to William Dawes.
The first trial by jury in Madras happened during this time, when one Mrs.Ascentia Dawes was accused of murdering her maidservant, a native girl. A total of 36 persons were summoned for jury duty, out of which only 3 were challenged. A jury of 12, consisting of 6 Englishmen and 6 Portuguese were empanelled and they found Mrs.Dawes guilty of murder, but not in the manner in which she was alleged to have committed the offence. They sought the direction of the court as to the manner in which to proceed further, to which the Court directed that they were to bring upon a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. To everyone’s surprise, the foreman of the jury, Mr.Reade, a son in law of Sir Edward Winter, pronounced a verdict of not guilty and thus, Mrs.Dawes were acquitted. The outcome of the case left no one in doubt that the Court needed the assistance of a person qualified in law.
The next phase in the early judicial history of Madras took place with the appointment of Streynsham Master as the Governor of Madras in 1678. During his tenure, the whole judicial system was reorganised. The Court of Governor and Council, created by the Charter of 1661 were designated as the High Court of Judicature and were empowered to sit every Wednesday and Saturday to hear and judge cases. The old Choultry court was also reorganised and the number of judges increased to three from two and it was made compulsory that not less than two of the judges should sit for trial of cases and registration of bills of land and other property. The court was empowered to try civil cases up to 50 pagodas and petty criminal cases. Appeals against orders of the Choultry court lay with the High Court of Judicature.
The next courts to be established were the Admiralty court and the Mayor’s court. The Admiralty court was setup in 1686 order to deal effectively with interlopers, who were traders who had no authority to trade with India. This court seems to have functioned regularly upto 1704, after which it ceased to have regular sittings, thanks to the Company paying more attention to the Mayor’s Court, which had been setup in 1688 when a Charter was granted to the East India Company to establish a Corporation with a Mayor and twelve Aldermen. The jurisdiction of the Admiralty Court, including the hearings of appeals from the Mayor’s Court was transferred to the Governor and Council and the court gradually disappeared from the scene. The Mayor’s Court was transformed into a Court of Record by the Charter of George I in 1726, having jurisdiction not only over the Presidency town of Madras but also over all factories subordinate to the Governor of Fort St.George.
This Charter also brought into existence the office of a Sherriff, who was invested with full powers to execute the processes of the Mayor’s Court. An appeal against an order of the Mayor’s Court lay with the Governor in Council and the decision of the Governor in Council was final in suits of value of less than 1000 pagodas and where the value was more than 1000 pagodas, a further appeal lay with the King in Council. An expert in law was appointed as Recorder to assist the Mayor’s Court in judging the cases. The Mayor’s Court exercised its jurisdiction in civil cases where the value of the case exceeded 3 pagodas and in the criminal cases with assistance from the juries. Two of the Aldermen sat at the Choultry Court to try petty offences and petty claims not exceeding 3 pagodas. The Choultry Court continued to function till 1726.
The link to the article:
HISTORY OF MADRAS HIGH COURT