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V. L. Ethiraj,
Barrister - at - law


“The great legacy that the British have left us, a legacy of which even the Mahatma, the Father of the Nation, was always proud, happen to be judicial institutions. It should be the first and foremost duty of every Indian to respect and follow the old judicial traditions in word and spirit and it is only by so doing that these institutions continued by the present Indian Constitution can be protected and preserved.” So wrote the erudite legal scholar and well-known professor of Constitutional Law, N. Arunachalam in his brilliant essay on Judicial Institutions, in the sadly out of print legal history classic ‘A Century Completed’ (1862-1962), by the successful lawyer and multifaceted personality V. C. Gopalratnam.

The roots of the legal system in India date back to December 31, 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I gave a Royal Charter to ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading to the East Indies’ (more familiarly known as the East India Company). This Royal Charter gave the Governor and the Company the power to make laws, orders, ordinances,constitutions and establish courts that might be necessary for the right and proper governance of the Company. Over the years it also gave powers to saddle offenders with punishment by imprisonment,fines, and even whipping in some cases. James I renewed the Charter in 1609 giving more powers to the Company. When Oliver Cromwell took control of the United Kingdom, he granted many Charters between 1649 and 1660 but there is no evidence of such available today. Either they have been lost or suppressed after the Restoration of Monarchy in England in 1660.

With the Restoration, Charles II became the rightful occupant of the English throne and he gave his Charter in 1661. This Charter gave the Company sweeping powers under which a Council was formed to try cases, civil, criminal, and others according to the English law. In 1683 another Charter came into force, which is of considerable importance because it established “a Court of Judicature” (the first time the expression was used) consisting of a person knowledgeable in the civil laws, and two merchants of the Company to help him. In 1687 came the East India Company Charter, which gave power to the Company to establish the Corporation of Madras with a Mayor. Later a Mayor's Court was established with a Recorder, which had limited powers. This later gave way to the Supreme Court of Judicature established in Madras in September 1801 and Sir Thomas Strange who functioned as the Recorder became Chief Justice.

One of the most memorable personalities of the early legal history of Madras, Sir Thomas Strange was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on November 30, 1756. The son of Sir Robert Strange, he was educated at Westminster School and then at Christ Church, Oxford, after which he became a Barrister of Lincoln's Inn in 1785. On resigning as Chief Justice of Nova Scotia and President of the Council, he came to Madras as Recorder where he set up its judicial system. In 1798 Strange was knighted, and in 1800, he was elevated as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Madras. In 1804, he went to Calcutta where he ‘commanded a volunteer battalion and quelled a mutiny’. In 1817, Strange resigned as Chief Justice and moved back to England. In 1825, he wrote his pioneering work, ‘Elements of Hindu Law’. He passed away in England in 1841.

A man of extraordinary brilliance, his is one of the earliest books in English on Hindu Law. Not familiar with Sanskrit he sought the help of several Brahmin pundits while at Madras and wrote the book later in his homeland. An excellent portrait of Sir Thomas Strange adorned the walls of the Madras Literary Society Library on College Road in Nungambakkam for many years. It is now in the Madras High Court Museum…..….

A series of changes took place over the years, and when Queen Victoria took over Rule of India after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the British Parliament passed ‘The Indian High Courts Act of 1861’ establishing High Courts at the three Presidency Towns of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras.

During various periods in the early legal history there was a ‘Sadr Adalat’, three chief courts of appeal from courts administering Hindu and Islamic Law for different types of cases.Those were

1) Sadr Diwani Adalat: The chief civil court of appeal from courts administering Hindu and Islamic Law.

2) Sadr Faujdari Adalat: Until 1862 the chief criminal court of appeal in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies from courts administering Hindu and Islamic Law.

3) Sadr Nizamat Adalat: Until 1862, the chief criminal court of appeal in the Bengal Presidency from courts administering Hindu and Islamic Law.

These were amalgamated in 1862 with the Supreme Courts to form the High Courts at the three Presidency Towns. The Sadr Courts of Madras were situated in a spacious mansion in the Alwarpet area at the western end of Luz Church Road known as ‘Sudr Gardens’. It still exists on Kasturi Ranga Road of today which was the residence of Mr. Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed, former judge of the Madras High Court.

According to inimitable chronicler V. C. Gopalratnam, there was a tree on Mowbray’s Road near the Luz Church Road junction in Alwarpet, which was used to hang prisoners sentenced to death. Known as ‘the Hanging Tree’ more than a fistful of blood-curdling tales began to circulate around it scaring away folks from visiting the area after sundown!

To be continued......