The Counsel

Dispute Resolution
by Syed Bulent Sohail
Senior Associate, Orr, Dignam & Co.

After putting down the 1857 ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, the major preoccupation of the British Government was to introduce the Pax Britannica (the ‘British Peace’) in the Indian Subcontinent. In less than a month after its declaration of victory over the disparate native rebels, Queen Victoria assented to the Government of India Act, 1858 and in one legislative stroke transferred the powers of the East India Company to the Crown. Amongst the pillars supporting this new British Raj were (i) unwavering support for the native princes, (ii) divide and rule as opposed to the unification policies of East India Company (notably of Lord Dalhousie) (iii) complete non-intervention in religious belief or worship and (iv) long-standing promise of impartiality and justice with respect to race, religion and creed. This Article is concerned with the latter aspect of the British rule in the way the Raj manifested itself through the monumental High Courts of the Subcontinent.

Not long after the promulgation of the Government of India Act, the Empress of India through the Secretary of State for India proclaimed the Indian High Courts Act, 1861 (1861 Act), vesting in her the prerogative to issue letters patent to erect and establish High Courts of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The express aim of the Act was to effect a fusion of the Supreme Courts and the Sudder Adalats in the three Presidencies (i.e. Bombay, Madras and Calcutta) through issuance of the letters patent. These High Courts had original as well as appellate jurisdiction making them the supreme and final courts of appeal in all cases, civil and criminal, except cases that possessed the requisite importance, pecuniary or legal, demanding a further appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

What makes the examination of the ‘Historic High Courts of the Subcontinent’ interesting for lawyers and laymen alike is the architectural movement associated with these majestic structures. The British Raj coincided with the architectural and cultural movement experienced in Europe known as the Gothic-Revival. This movement expressed a revolt against neoclassical styles prevalent at the times and a revival of the medieval form. This coupled with ‘Asian exoticism’ in the orientalist trend gave birth to what was called the Indo-Gothic,  the Indo-Saracenic, or Mughal-Gothic style at the hands of British architects and engineers who were engaged in many cases by the public works department. These structures were built in conformance with advanced British structural engineering standards of the 1800s, which came to include infrastructures composed of iron, steel and poured concrete. Typical architectural elements employed by the British designers included:

• onion (bulbous) domes
• vaulted roofs
• pointed, cusped or scalloped arches
• miniature domes
• overhanging eaves
• domed kiosks
• domed chhattris
• minarets
• open pavilions
• pinnacles
• harem windows
• open pavilions or pavilions with Bangala      roofs
• pierced open arcading

Our journey begins with the earliest of the High Courts of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Allahabad followed, in the second part, by the High Courts of Karnataka, Patna, Lahore, Sindh and Madhya Pradesh.


I . Calcutta High Court (1862)

The Calcutta High Court was established on 1st July 1862 by the issuance of the Letters Patent under 1861 Act. The jurisdiction of this High Court extends to the State of Bengal in India.

Walter Granville, a Government architect employed by the department of works, designed the building of Calcutta High Court and the design is said to be a replica of the Stand Hans in Ypres, Belgium. The building was designed on Indo-Gothic lines and is reminiscent of the colleges at Oxford. It has a tower which stands 54m high and the original courthouse built in sandstone stands on the eastern side and the later annexes have been built around it. The various libraries include the Bar library and the Judges library, characteristic of all High Courts founded by the British. Portraits and busts of legal luminaries adorn the courtrooms and the corridors and the Bar library is a treasury for the legal tomes.

It is of interest to Pakistanis that the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and the eminent lawyer, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, hailed from West Bengal where his family had historic roots. Shaheed Suhrawardy’s father was justice Sir Zahid Suhrawardy, a prominent judge of the Calcutta High Court.


II. Bombay High Court (1862)

The main architect of the judicial system of Bombay was Gerald Aungier, the Governor of the Surat Factory. He has been described as the "true founder" of Bombay and was a man of liberal disposition who believed in impartial administration of justice without fear or favor. The first British court of justice in Bombay was inaugurated in 1672 with due pomp and ceremony. In Gerald Aungier’s address to the court he espoused to make available the full rigors of the rule of law to the East India Company’s subjects in Surat:

"The Inhabitants of this Island consist of several nations and religions, like English, Portuguese and other Christians, Moores and Gentoos, but you, when you sit in this seat of justice and judgment, must look upon them with one single eye as I do, without distinction of nation or religion, for they are all His Majesty's and the Hon'ble Company's subjects as the English are, and have all an equal title and right to justice."

The Bombay High Court was inaugurated on 14th August 1862 by Letters Patent issued by Queen Victoria and its jurisdiction extends to the State of Maharashtra in India.

The work on the present building of the High Court was commenced in April 1871 and completed in November 1878. It is a testament to the Gothic Revival in early English style. The building is 562 feet (171 m) long and 189 feet (58 m) wide. To the west of the central tower are two octagonal towers. The statues of Justice and Mercy are atop this building, which is 90 feet high and its central feature is at a height of approximately 178 feet. The building in its Indo-Gothic design was the creation of British engineer, Colonel J.A. Fuller, and was completed at a cost of Rs.1,644,528. The walls are of rubble and chuna faced with a local black basalt surface, a treatment used commonly in the nineteenth century.

The chambers are surrounded by Venetian style galleries along the western corridors which are decorated with sculptural carvings. The stone masons were unknown local artisans, who were given a free hand. Some of these carvings include heads of wolves and foxes with counsel's bands round their necks.  An outstanding creation by a sculptor is on the first and second floors depicting a monkey-judge (presumably suggested by Aesop's fable of the judicial monkey and the two litigious cats) with one eye bandaged and holding unevenly the scales of justice.  There is a tale behind this sculpture.  It is said that there was a dispute between the European building contractor and the sub-contractor, who was a Parsi, over the division of spoils.  The Parsi brought a suit and lost.  As some finishing touches had yet to be done, the disgruntled suitor avenged himself upon law and justice (both counsel and judge) in stone and plaster in the aforesaid manner. However, the true symbol of Justice, the stone statue of the Goddess of Justice, is preserved on the battlement on the western front of the High Court building. She is represented with both eyes bandaged and holding the Sword of Justice in one hand and the Scales meticulously balanced in the other.


III. Madras High Court (1862)

The Madras High Court is one of the landmarks of India and is considered to be one of the largest judicial complexes in the world. The High Court of Madras is one of the three High Courts in India established at the Presidency Towns by Letters Patent granted by Queen Victoria, bearing the date 26th June 1862, and is the highest Court in the State of Tamil Nadu. Although Madras was renamed as Chennai, the High Court’s name was not changed owing to its rich traditional heritage. The jurisdiction of the Madras High Court extends to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

The High Court building is an excellent example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. This mega-complex houses the High Court, the Small Cause's Court as well as the City Civil Court. The High Court was completed in 1892 under the guidance of Henry Irwin who was a renowned architect of British India credited with building imperial masterpieces. His other famous works include the Maharaja’s palace at Mysore (Ambas Vilas), the Viceregal Lodge at Simla, Headquarters of the Great Southern India Railway and the State Bank of Madras.

The red sandstone construction, ornamental decorations on the walls, stained glass windows and minarets add immense beauty to this magnificent building. The compound has a pyramid shaped tomb which belongs to the only son of Elihu Yale (after whom Yale University was named), who died in infancy. A fine example is Court No. 13 which has stained glass, fretted wood work, carved furniture, silvered panels and a painted ceiling.

Another interesting piece of history relating to the High Court building is that it was damaged in the shelling of Madras by S.M.S. Emden a light cruiser of the German Pacific Fleet on 22nd September 1914, at the eve of the First World War. It remains one of the very few Indian buildings to have been damaged by a German attack.


IV. Allahabad High Court (1866)

In the year 1866, the High Court of Judicature for the North-Western Provinces came into existence at Agra under Letters Patent of Queen Victoria replacing the old Sudder Diwanny Adawlat. The seat of the High Court for the North-Western Provinces, however, was shifted from Agra to Allahabad in 1869 and its designation was altered to the High Court of Judicature at Allahabad. The High Court’s jurisdiction extends to the State of Uttar Pradesh.

The present building of the Allahabad High Court was completed in 1916 and inaugurated by the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford. The building was designed by Frank Lishman. The structure of the High Court is subtly adapted to the hot climate of the area as is evident from the double roofing with tiles from Allahabad. Conceived in a grand fashion, it has a domed pediment centre, arcade wings, stone balustrades and engrained arches. It reflects a beautiful synthesis of Eastern and Western architectural styles that are characteristic of the Indo Gothic architectural era in the Subcontinent.

One of the eminent Chief Justices of the Allahbad High Court was Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman (1932 to 1937). After completing his legal education from Cambridge and Dublin, Sir Sulaiman returned to India as a Barrister and at the age of 34, he was made a judge of the Allahbad High Court. He became the acting Chief Justice at the age of 43 and the permanent Chief Justice three years later. As Chief Justice, he authored the famous decision in the Meerut Consipracy Case (S.H. Jhabuala vs. Emperor AIR 1933 All 690), a landmark judgement concerning a workers’ uprising. On appeal, Sir Sulaiman either reduced the stringent sentences or overturned the convictions on inter alia the grounds that in such political cases severe sentences create further offences, thereby increasing public and civil unrest.

Besides Sir Sulaiman’s achievements as a jurist, he was a distinguished educationist and reformer being the president of various educational institutions including the Aligarh University and the Anglo-Arabic College of Delhi. Sir Sulaiman died on 12th March 1941 and is buried at Nizamuddin Darga at Dehli by the side of Amir Khusrow. Among the desecendants of Sir Sulaiman   is Barrister Shahida Jamil, the former Law Minister of Pakistan.

The writer is a graduate of Queen’s University (BA) and the University of New Brunswick (LLB). He is an Advocate of the High Court and a Senior Associate at Orr, Dignam & Co and may be reached at bulentsohail@counselpakistan.com