The Indian judicial system follows the common law system based on recorded judicial precedents as inherited from the British colonial legacy. The court system of India comprises the Supreme Court of India, the High Courts and subordinate courts at district, municipal and village levels.
I. Hierarchy of courts
The Indian judiciary is divided into several levels in order to decentralize and address matters at the grassroots levels. The basic structure is as follows:
1. Supreme Court: It is the Apex court of the country and was constituted on 28th January 1950. It is the highest court of appeal and enjoys both original suits and appeals of High Court judgments. The Supreme Court is comprised of the Chief Justice of India and 25 other judges. Articles 124-147 of the Constitution of India lay down the authority of the Supreme Court.
2. High Courts: High Courts are the highest judicial body at the State level. Article 214 lays down the authority of High Courts. There are 25 High Courts in India. High Courts exercise civil or criminal jurisdiction only if the subordinate courts in the State are not competent to try the matters. High Courts may even take appeals from lower courts. High Court judges are appointed by the President of India upon consultation with the Chief Justice of India, the Chief Justice of the High Court and the Governor of the State.
3. District Courts: District Courts are established by the State Governments of India for every district or group of districts based on the caseload and population density. District Courts are under the direct administration of High Courts and are bound by High Court judgments. Every district generally has two kinds of courts:
a. Civil Courts
b. Criminal Courts
District Courts are presided over by District Judges. Additional District Judges and Assistant District Judges may be appointed based on the caseload. Appeals against District Court judgments lie in the High Court.
4. Lok Adalats/Village Courts: these are subordinate courts at the village level which provide a system for alternate dispute resolution in villages.
5. Tribunals: the Constitution provides the government with the power to set up special Tribunals for the administration of specific matters such as tax cases, land cases, consumer cases etc.
Appellate jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to rehear/review a case decided by a lower court. In India, appellate jurisdiction is vested in both the Supreme Court and High Courts. They may either overrule or uphold the judgments of lower courts.
II. Civil Courts
Civil courts provide remedies for civil wrongs committed by individuals against other individuals and entities. Civil matters range from property disputes to breaches of contract to divorce cases. Civil courts follow the principle of ubi jus ibi remedium (for every wrong the law provides remedy). Unless expressly or impliedly barred by any other law in force, civil courts have the jurisdiction to try all suits of civil nature.
The Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) 1908 governs the procedures to be followed by civil courts in administering civil cases in India.
As a matter of fact, every suit must be instituted before the court of lowest jurisdiction (the Munsif court). Upon institution, it is decided whether the respective court has competence to try the case.
The Civil Court hierarchy in districts is as follows:
1. District Court: The court of district judges is the highest civil court in a district. It exercises both judicial and administrative functions. The District Judge combines the powers of trying both civil and criminal cases. Hence, they are designated the District and Sessions Judge.
2. Sub-judge Court: if the value of the subject-matter of the suit is worth more than Rs. 1 lakh, the Sub-judge and Additional Sub-judge courts may try the suit.
3. Additional Sub-judge Court: this is created based on the case-load.
4. Munsif Court: if the value of the subject-matter of the suit is worth Rs. 1 lakh or below, the Munsif court is competent to try the suit.
III. Criminal Courts
The power of the various criminal courts is mentioned under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
According to Section 26 of the CrPC, any offence mentioned under the Indian Penal Code may be tried by:
- High Courts
- Courts of Session
- Any other Court as specified in the First Schedule of the Code of Criminal Procedure
IV. Judicial Authority of the Supreme Court
Articles 141 and 144 of the Constitution uphold the authority and jurisdiction given to the Supreme Court to make decisions and uphold the law of the land. These Articles give animal welfare judgments their binding force, ensuring that they are appropriately enforced and implemented by the respective authorities. They allow for the Supreme Court to issue directives and fill gaps in law until the legislature steps in.
Article 141 lays down that “the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India.”
This Article embodies the English principle of stare decisis which holds that law must be definite, fixed, known and consistent. Since the Supreme Court is the Apex court of the country and all courts and tribunals are bound by its decisions, Supreme Court judgments become a source of law in themselves.
The binding part is the operative part of the judgment or the ratio decidendi (“reason of decision) determined after reading the judgment in its entirety. It is the general principle derived from a judgment that is deduced by courts when deciding the case based on facts. Mere observations, or the obiter dicta (“said by the way”), on the other hand, refer to those parts of judicial decisions which are general observations of the judge in the case. Obiter dicta have only persuasive value, not binding authority.
Article 144 lays down that “all authorities, civil and judicial, in the territory of India shall act in aid of the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court has the power to hold any authority in contempt if they disregard or disobey the order of the court.
V. Binding value of Judicial Precedents
Since India is a common law country, previously decided judgments of higher courts such as the Supreme Court and High Courts are binding on subordinate and lower courts, i.e., subordinate courts are bound to follow the decisions and hold them to be the law. Precedents are an important source of law in India. The binding value of different courts in the court hierarchy is as follows:
- Decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all courts in India. The Supreme Court is not bound by decisions of High Courts, lower courts or other judicial authorities.
- Decisions of a High Court are binding on all inferior courts (as long as they don’t conflict with Supreme Court decisions) within its jurisdiction but holds only persuasive value for courts outside its jurisdiction. In case the decisions of the High Court conflict with the decisions of a similar bench, the matter is referred to a higher bench.
- Lower courts are bound by decisions of higher courts in their own states. Decisions by High Courts of other states hold only persuasive value.
VI. Public Interest Litigation (PIL)
Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is an effective tool to advance social justice in India. Borrowed from the American tradition of Social Action Litigation, PILs have been widely used in India to advance the causes of disadvantaged and marginalized communities. The general rule to bring a cause of action in court is the rule of locus standi i.e. the party must possess sufficient connection or suffer particular harm in order to be a party to the case. In PILs, this rule is relaxed considerably as any citizen of India may bring an action in court to reduce a wrong if there has been a breach of Fundamental Rights. PILs are an effective tool in the furtherance of animal protection by allowing animal rights groups and activists to file PILs at the Supreme Court and give a voice to the voiceless.
Some landmark PILs related to animal welfare filed in the Supreme Court of India include the cases of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Union of India (a case regarding the protection of animals against exploitation and ill-treatment during film-making) and Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja & Ors. (a case regarding the prohibition of a traditional bull-fighting practice called Jallikattu).