Jurisdiction of High Courts in India: Overview

By | May 14, 2020
Jurisdiction of High Courts

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Overview : Jurisdiction of High Courts in India

This article ‘Jurisdiction of High Courts’ gives an insight into the diverse jurisdictions enjoyed by the High Courts in India.

The High court is established in every state to ensure peace and justice in the state. The High Courts have wide jurisdiction and have been constituted into important instruments of justice. They are the general Court of appeal from the Courts subordinate to them. The most significant aspect of their jurisdiction is the power to issue writs. The writ-jurisdiction of the High Courts is invoked very commonly to enforce Fundamental Rights and to control the administrative process.

Several statutes confer an advisory jurisdiction on the High Courts. Each High Court has supervisory powers to control the subordinate judiciary and to keep the lower courts in the narrow path of administration of impartial justice.

Introduction: Jurisdiction of High Court

“The primary duty of the Judiciary is to uphold the Constitution and the Laws without fear or favour, without being biased by political ideology or economic theory.[1]

The High court remains as the apex court in the State judicial system which is followed by a system of subordinate courts. However, they come below the Supreme Court in India’s judicial hierarchy. Articles 214 – 231 of the Indian Constitution deals with the composition, powers and jurisdiction of High Courts in India. The High Courts have an exceptionally huge role to play in the administration of justice. The High court has a very wide and varied jurisdiction. This conferral of wide jurisdiction vide the Constitution can be attributed to the enormity of task assigned to these Courts.

The High Courts are vested with both civil as well as criminal, ordinary as well as extraordinary, and general as well as special jurisdiction. Each High Court, being a Court of record enjoys the power to punish for its contempt as well as of its Subordinate Courts.[2]

As a Court of record, the High Court has two-fold powers:

  • it has the power to determine the question about its own jurisdiction; and
  • it has inherent power to punish for its contempt

The High Court’s jurisdiction can be broadly classified as follows,

  1. Original jurisdiction
  2. Appellate jurisdiction
  3. Supervisory jurisdiction

I. Original Jurisdiction

This is the jurisdiction of the high court to hear cases for the first instance and not by means of appeals. The jurisdiction of the high court is not mentioned in detail in the Constitution. It merely declares that their jurisdiction to be the same as were enjoyed by them immediately before the commencement of the Constitution.[3]

However, the original jurisdiction may be exercised in the following issues relating to –

  1. Dispute between parliament and state legislature
  2. Disputes regarding admiralty divorce, testamentary, matrimonial, guardianship matters, contempt of court etc.
  3. Enforcement of fundamental rights
  4. Cases which involve the question of law

 Original jurisdiction is conferred on the High Courts under several statutes.

A. Writ Jurisdiction

Nature of the writ jurisdiction:

A very significant aspect of the Indian Constitution is the jurisdiction it confers on the High Courts to issue writs. It was an act of great wisdom and foresight on the part of the Constitution-makers to introduce the writ system in India, and thus constitute the High courts into guardians of the people’s legal rights. Article 226(1) reads as follows,

“(1) Notwithstanding anything in article 32 4***, every High Court shall have power, throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, within those territories directions, orders or 5 writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari, or any of them, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose.]”[4]

The jurisdiction conferred upon the High court is to protect not only the Fundamental Rights but even any other legal right as is clear from the words, ‘any other purpose’. The advantage of Art. 226 is that its scope cannot be curtailed or whittled down by legislation. The jurisdiction of the High Court under Art. 226 cannot be taken away by any legislation. Even when the Legislature declares the action or decision of an authority final, and ordinary jurisdiction of the courts is barred, a High Court is still entitled to exercise its writ jurisdiction. A High Court does not ordinarily issue a writ when an alternative efficacious remedy is available. Under Art. 226, the High Court does not decide disputes for which remedies under the general law are available. Ordinary remedies are not sought to be replaced by Art. 226.

B. Territorial jurisdiction

A High court exercises its writ jurisdiction throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises its jurisdiction. The High court can issue a writ,

  1. to a person or authority having its location or residence within the court’s territorial jurisdiction or
  2. if the cause of action either wholly or partly arises within the high court’s territorial jurisdiction.

It is the duty of the High Court before which the writ petition is filed to ascertain whether any part of the cause of action has arisen within the territorial limits of its jurisdiction. It depends on the facts of each case. When an order is challenged, the cause of action arises. (i) at the place where the order was made, as well as; (ii) at the place where its consequences fall on the person concerned.

The High Court can issue a writ even when the person resides, or the authority is located, outside its territorial jurisdiction if the cause of action wholly or partially arises within the Court’s territorial jurisdiction. When a part of the cause of action arises within one or the other High Court, it will be for the petitioner to choose his forum.

C. Public Interest Litigation

Public interest litigation means litigation filed in the court of law with the view to protect the interest of the general public. The high court can hear matters of PIL filed under Article 226. Through PIL persons who were not directly affected in the case may bring to the notice of the court matters of public interest. It is the privilege of the court to entertain the application for the public interest litigation. Public interest litigation has not been defined in any particular statute whereas it has been interpreted by the Judges. It is the power granted to the public by the courts.

The PIL may be entertained on any subject of vital public importance, such as:

  1. Bonded Labour matters.
  2. Neglected Children.
  3. Petitions from riot victims.
  4. Petitions complaining of harassment or torture of persons belonging Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes by the others or by the police.
  5. Petitioner pertaining to environmental pollution, disturbance of ecological balance, forest and wildlife.
  6. Petitioners complaining violation of human rights.

Relationship between Article 32 and 226

Article 226 operates “notwithstanding anything in article 32”. Thus it is clear that Article 32 and Article 226 function independently of each other. Article 226 has a much wider scope than Article 32 in general. Article 32 is for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights only whereas Article 226 is for the enforcement of not only fundamental rights but also legal rights. The territorial jurisdiction is wide under Article 32 but it is narrow in case of Article 226. For enforcement of Fundamental Rights, a parallel writ Jurisdiction has been conferred upon the High Courts as well as on the Supreme Court.

D. Cases involving the question of law

Under Article 228 the high court is empowered to withdraw a case pending in a subordinate court if it is satisfied that the particular case,

  1. Involves a substantial question of law regarding the interpretation of the Constitution
  2. Determining the answer to that question is necessary for the disposal of the case.

The court may then dispose of the whole case itself or may determine only the substantial question of law and return the case to the subordinate Court for disposal in conformity with the High Court’s judgment on that question of law.

The language of Art. 228 is such that once the conditions mentioned therein are satisfied, the High Court has no option but to withdraw the case to itself for disposal.[5]

II. Appellate Jurisdiction

A high court is mainly a court of appeal. Appeals against the judgments of subordinate courts functioning in its territorial jurisdiction are heard by the High Court. The appellate jurisdiction of a High Court is wider than its original jurisdiction. This power can be divided into 2 categories, they are Civil and Criminal appellate Jurisdiction.

In civil matters, its jurisdiction includes the orders and judgments of the district courts, additional district courts, and the other subordinate courts. An appeal can also be made from the subordinate court directly if the dispute involves a value higher than Rs. 5000/- or on a question of fact or law.

In criminal cases, its jurisdiction includes judgments relating to sessions courts and additional sessions court. These cases should be involving imprisonment for more than 7 years, confirmation of any death sentence awarded by session court before execution, or if the sessions judge has awarded capital punishment.

III. Supervisory Jurisdiction

According to Article 227 of the Constitution, the High Court is provided with the ‘power of superintendence over all Courts and tribunals within its territorial jurisdiction’. This power of High court does not extend to the armed forces tribunals. This jurisdiction cannot be limited or fettered by an act of the State Legislature.

The supervisory jurisdiction extends to keeping the subordinate tribunals within the limits of their authority and according to law. The powers under Article 227 are wide and can be used, to meet the ends of justice. They can be used to interfere even with an interlocutory order. However, the power of superintendence does not imply that the High Court can influence the subordinate judiciary to pass any order or judgment in a particular manner.[6]

This power of superintendence is both administrative and judicial nature, and, such power could be exercised suo motu. When a tribunal has acted within its jurisdiction, the High Court does not interfere unless there is any grave miscarriage of justice or flagrant violation of the law.[7] The Court would interfere only when the exercise of discretion by a tribunal is capricious, perverse or ultra vires and not when it is exercised judicially. The Court would not interfere merely because it might take a different view of the facts and exercise the discretion differently from what the tribunal has done.[8] In other words, its discretionary power has to be exercised sparingly and only to keep subordinate courts and tribunals within the bounds of their authority and not to correct mere errors.

The power of superintendence of the High Court extends not only to the courts but also to all judicial or quasi-judicial bodies within its territorial limits. This aspect of Art. 227 is very significant in the present era of proliferation of tribunals.

It has been held by the Supreme Court that the power vested in the High Courts under Art. 227 is “part of the basic structure of the Constitution”.[9]

Scope of Article 227

In Umaji v. Radhikabai [10], the Supreme Court has explained the difference between Art. 226 and Art. 227. The power to issue writs is not the same as the power of superintendence as the power under Art. 227 is broader than that conferred on the High Court by Art. 226.[11] For example, through its power to issue certiorari under Art. 226, a High Court can annul the decision of a tribunal while under Art. 227 it can do that and do something more – it can issue further directions in the matter. But under Art. 227, the High Court does not sit as a Court of appeal.

The power of superintendence conferred by Art. 227 is supervisory and not appellate jurisdiction. Further, where the statute bars the exercise of revisional powers it would require very exceptional circumstances to warrant interference under Article 227 since the power of superintendence was not meant to circumvent statutory law. It is settled law that the jurisdiction under Article 227 could not be exercised in the “cloak of an appeal in disguise”.[12]

Article 235 also vests in the High Courts some control over the subordinate courts. While Art. 227 deals with the official acts of the persons occupying those courts, Art. 235 deals with such persons themselves in relation to the discipline. While the power of superintendence of the High Courts under Art. 227 extends to the courts and tribunals, the controlling power under Art. 235 extends only to courts and not to tribunals. Further, the High Court’s jurisdiction under Art. 227 cannot be controlled by a statute and it can be exercised even when a tribunal’s decision is declared to be final and conclusive.

However, the Supreme Court in Babhutmal Raichand Oswal v. Laxmibai R. Tarta and Anr.,[13]has held that “the power of superintendence under Article 227 cannot be invoked to correct an error of fact which only a superior court can do in the exercise of its statutory power as a court of appeal. The High Court cannot in the guise of exercising its jurisdiction under Article 227 convert itself into a court of appeal when the legislature has not conferred a right of appeal and made the decision of the subordinate court or tribunal final on facts”.

Power of Review

The power of review is not given to the High Court by any provision of the constitution. However, the Supreme Court has recognised that a High Court being a Court of record [Art. 215] has inherent powers to correct its record by way of review. It has a duty to itself to keep all its records correctly and in accordance with the law. Hence if any apparent error is noticed by the High Court in respect of any order favoured, by it, the High Court has not only the power but a duty, to correct it. The High Court’s power in that regard is plenary.

Conclusion

The Constitution of India has conferred on the High Courts significant and effective powers to,

  • administer justice,
  • promote action the Lower courts,
  • take prompt action when there is a miscarriage of justice,
  • secure the rights and liberties of the people, and
  • ensure that the Administration functions within the limits of the law.

The High Courts, thus, occupy a high position of respect, dignity, honour and authority in the judicial system of India. But, the High Courts are affiliated with the malady of arrears and it takes several years before an appeal is disposed of by a High Court.


By: Aparna Ramamoorthy


[1] Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v. Union of India, (2003) 4 SCC 399

[2] INDIA. CONST Art. 215

[3] INDIA. CONST Art. 225

[4] INDIA CONST. Art. 226, Cl .1.

[5] State of Mysore v. Chandrasekhar, AIR 1966 SC 532.

[6] Jasbir Singh Chhabra & Ors v. State Of Punjab, (2010) 4 SCC 192

[7] D.N. Banerjee v. P.R. Mukherjee, AIR 1953 SC 58

[8] Sarpanch, Lonand Grampanchayat v. Ramgiri Gosavi & Anr, 1968 AIR 222.

[9] L. Chandra Kumar v. Union Of India And Others, 1997 (2) SCR 1186

[10] 1986 AIR 1272

[11] Surya Dev Rai v. Ram Chander Rai & Ors, 2003 (6) SCC 675

[12] New Delhi v. Navjot Sandhu alias Afshan Guru and others, (2003) 6 SCC 641

[13] (1975) 1 SCC 858


  1. Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India: Overview
  2. Supreme Court: Composition, Appointment & Removal of Judges