Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India: Overview

By | May 14, 2020
Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India

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Overview : Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India

This article ‘Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India’ critically analyses the various jurisdictions of the Supreme Court of India which helps in protecting the spirit of the constitution among other things the fundamental rights and the concept of federalism.

Introduction

India has a well – regulated judicial machinery with the Supreme Court at the apex. India has a unified system of courts as opposed to the U.S.A. The Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the Lower Courts constitute a single, unified, judiciary having jurisdiction as mentioned by the constitution. The powers and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court are well–defined in the Constitution. It has a much wider jurisdiction than the highest court in any other federation.

The Supreme Court acts as a court of appeal, the sentinel of the Constitution and also has advisory jurisdiction. Further, it can hear appeals from any court or tribunal in the country and can issue writs for enforcing the Fundamental Rights. This article critically analyses the various jurisdictions of the Supreme Court of India which helps in protecting the spirit of the constitution among other things the fundamental rights and the concept of federalism.

Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India

Generally speaking, jurisdiction means the general authority of a court to adjudicate a legal matter. It is important because if a court lacks jurisdiction then any judgement passed by the court regarding that matter would be invalid/void. In order to make a binding decision, the court must be well aware of its jurisdiction and act within its jurisdiction as mentioned in the Constitution.

The judiciary in India has been assigned a significant role to play. It has to dispense justice not only between one person and another but also between the state and the citizens. It interprets the Constitution and acts as its guardian by keeping all authorities – legislative, executive, administrative, judicial and quasi-judicial within bounds. The judiciary is entitled to scrutinise any governmental action in order to assess whether or not it conforms with the Constitution and the valid laws made thereunder.

 “The judiciary supervises the administrative process in the country, and acts as the balance-wheel of federalism by settling intergovernmental disputes.

The judiciary has the power to protect people’s Fundamental Rights from any undue encroachment by any organ of the government. The Supreme Court, in particular, acts as the guardian and protector of the Fundamental Rights of the people.

In order to compensate for a wide range of responsibility, the Supreme Court is provided with multiple jurisdictions. Thus it is a multi-jurisdictional court and may be regarded as the most powerful Apex Court in the World.

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is very broad and may be put under the following heads: 

  1. Power to contempt [Art. 129].
  2. Original jurisdiction [Art. 131]. 
  3. Appellate jurisdiction [Arts. 132 to 134]. 
  4. Appellate jurisdiction under Art. 136 from any court or tribunal in the country in matters not falling under the heading. 
  5. Power to enforce Fundamental Rights. [Art. 32].
  6. Advisory jurisdiction. [Art. 143].
  7. Power to review its own decisions. [Art. 137].
  8. Power to make any order necessary for doing complete justice in any case. [Art. 142].

However, its jurisdiction can be broadly classified into three heads as follows,

  1. Original jurisdiction
  2. Appellate jurisdiction
  3. Advisory jurisdiction 

The Supreme Court is a ‘court of record’ and has all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for its contempt. A court of record has—

  1.  Power to determine its own jurisdiction, and
  2. It has the power to punish for its contempt. 

On the first question regarding jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has asserted:

“In the absence of any express provision in the Constitution the Apex Court being a court of record has jurisdiction in every matter and if there be any doubt, the court has the power to determine its jurisdiction.”

I. Original jurisdiction

It is the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court which gives it the power to entertain cases originating in the Supreme Court for the first instance.

  1. Adjudication of inter-governmental disputes
  2. Adjudication of disputes in the election of the president and vice-president
  3. Writ jurisdiction

A. Adjudication of inter-governmental disputes

It is dealt under Article 131 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction in cases between:

  1. Government on one hand and one or more states on the other
  2. Government and one or more states on one side and other states on the other.
  3. Two or more states.

A dispute to be justiciable by the Supreme Court under Art. 131 should involve a question, whether of law or fact, on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends. Thus, questions of a political nature not involving any legal aspect are excluded from the Court’s purview. Also, the dispute ought to be one between two governments, and not between one government and a private party or an agency or authority of the other government.

Exclusions under Art. 131

The jurisdiction under Art. 131 may be excluded by other provisions of the Constitution as the opening words of Art. 131 says “subject to the provisions of this Constitution”. The Constitution excludes the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Art. 131 in the following matters:

  1. According to the proviso to Art. 131, as mentioned above, the Court’s jurisdiction does not extend to a “dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, sanad or other similar instruments which having been entered into or executed before the commencement of the Constitution, continues in operation after such commencement or which provides that the said jurisdiction shall not extend to such a dispute.”
  2. Under Art. 262(2), Parliament may by law exclude Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to use, distribution or control of the waters in any inter-State river or river valley. 

B. Adjudication of disputes in the election of the president and vice-president   Disputes concerning the election of the President or Vice-President are decided exclusively by the Supreme Court and no other court.

C. Writ jurisdiction

Article 32 of the Constitution gives an extensive original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court in regard to enforcement of Fundamental Rights. A person can file a writ under Article 32 of the Constitution when his rights are abridged or adversely affected. It is empowered to issue directions, orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari to enforce the rights. The Supreme Court is also the guardian of the liberties and Fundamental Rights of citizens.

Any law passed by the legislature can be made null and void by the Court, if that particular law encroaches upon the Fundamental Rights. The Supreme Court has power to give whatever reliefs are necessary for the enforcement of the legal right claimed in the suit if such legal right is established. Art. 142 of the Constitution can also be invoked for the purpose.

Transfer in certain cases

Under Article 139A, the Supreme Court, if satisfied that cases involving the same or substantially the same questions of law are pending before it and one or more High Courts or before two or more High Courts and that such questions are substantial questions of general importance, may withdraw a case or cases pending before the High Court or High Courts and dispose of all such cases itself.

II. Appellate Jurisdiction

 The appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is extensive. It is the highest court of appeal.

  1. Constitutional matters
  2. Appeal in Civil matters
  3. Appeal in Criminal matters
  4. Appeal by special leave

A. Constitutional matters

Under Art. 132(1), an appeal lies to the Supreme Court from any judgment, decree or final order, whether in a civil, criminal or other proceedings, of a High Court if it certifies that the case involves a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution.

The power of the Supreme Court to hear appeals in constitutional matters is very broad because it acts as the guardian of the constitution.

An appeal lies to the Supreme Court after a High Court grants a certificate. Such a certificate can be granted if the following conditions are fulfilled,

  1. An appeal lies only from “any judgment decree or final order” of a High Court.
  2. The case ought to involve a question of law as to interpretation of the Constitution.
  3. The question involved must be a “substantial question”. A question is not ‘substantial’ when the law on the subject has been finally and authoritatively settled by the Supreme Court.

B. Appeal in Civil matters

Under Art. 133(1), an appeal lies to the Supreme Court from any judgment, decree or final order in a civil proceeding of a High Court if it certifies that,

  1. The case involves a substantial question of law of general importance, and
  2. In the opinion of the High Court, the said question needs to be decided by the Supreme Court. 

No appeal in a civil matter lies to the Supreme Court as a matter of right. An appeal can lie only on a certificate of the High Court which is issued when the above two conditions are satisfied.

Under Art. 133(3), unless Parliament provides otherwise, no appeal lies to the Supreme Court from the judgment, decree or final order of a single High Court Judge.

The certificate granted by the High Court does not obligate the Supreme Court to hear the case, and it is entitled to determine whether the certificate was rightly granted and whether the conditions prerequisite to the grant were satisfied.

When there is no justification for issuing the certificate by the High Court, the Supreme Court can always revoke it. In Express Newspapers Ltd. v. State of Madras[1], the Supreme Court revoked the certificate granted by the High Court as, in the opinion of the Supreme Court, no substantial question of law was involved.

C. Appeal in Criminal matters

The appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court on criminal matters is conferred by Article 134. The Supreme Court has only a limited criminal appellate jurisdiction in order to avoid piling up of cases in the Supreme Court. This can happen in two modes:

Without the certificate of appeal from HC an appeal lies to the Supreme Court if,

  • The High Court on appeal has reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to death or sentenced him to imprisonment for life or for a period of not less than 10 years. (Art. 134(1)(a)) It exists as a matter of right.
  • The High Court has withdrawn for trial a case from a lower court and sentenced the accused to death or sentenced him to imprisonment for life or for a period of not less than 10 years. (Art. 134 (1)(b))

With certificate 

  • The Supreme Court can hear an appeal in a criminal case if the High Court certifies that the case is a fit one for appeal to the Supreme Court. A certificate needs to be granted only in cases where there is a substantial question of law involved.

This discretionary power of the HC needs to be exercised judicially after applying the mind and not in a vague or fanciful manner.

The Supreme Court in Babu v. State of Uttar Pradesh[2], held that “the power under Art. 134(1)(c) conferred on the High Court is discretionary which is to be exercised on judicial principles.” 

Under Art. 134(2), Parliament is authorised to enlarge the criminal appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

D. Appeal by special leave

It is a residuary power given by the constitution to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has also a very wide appellate jurisdiction over all Courts and Tribunals in India in as much as it may, in its discretion, grant special leave to appeal under Article 136 of the Constitution from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any Court or Tribunal in the territory of India.

However, it cannot be passed in case of the judgment passed by a court or tribunal of armed forces.

III. Advisory jurisdiction

The Supreme Court of India also enjoys an Advisory Jurisdiction. This power has been vested upon the Supreme Court by Article 143 of the Indian Constitution. Article 143 gives power to the President to consult the Supreme Court when there arises a question of law or question of fact. The Article reads as follows,

“(1) If at any time it appears to the President that a question of law or fact has arisen, or is likely to arise, which is of such a nature and of such public importance that it is expedient to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court upon it, he may refer the question to that Court for consideration and the Court may, after such hearing as it thinks fit, report to the President its opinion thereon. 

(2) The President may, notwithstanding anything in 1*** the proviso to article 131, refer a dispute of the kind mentioned in the 2[said proviso] to the Supreme Court for opinion and the Supreme Court shall, after such hearing as it thinks fit, report to the President its opinion thereon”.[3]

The scope of Art. 143(1) is quite broad. There is no condition that the President can refer only to such questions pertaining to his powers, functions and duties or those of the Central Government. The President can seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on any question of law or fact which appears to him to be of such a nature and of such public importance that it is expedient to obtain the Court’s opinion.

No matter whether a particular law falls under the state sphere or the center sphere, the President has the power to refer to the Supreme Court for its opinion on any question of fact or on any question of law. The requirements for the President to seek its opinion from the Supreme Court are as follows,

  1. A question of law or fact has arisen or is likely to arise.
  2. The nature of the question of law is such that it gains more of a public importance which makes it imperative to get the opinion of the Supreme Court.

If these requirements are fulfilled, it will justify the reference of the President to the Supreme Court. The use of the word ‘may’ in Article 143(1), does not impose any obligation on the Supreme Court to give its opinion on any question of law or fact referred to it by the President. It may refuse to give its opinion when it feels that it is purely socio-economic or political questions having no constitutional significance. It has a discretion in the matter and may, in a proper case, for good reasons, decline to express any opinion on the question submitted to it. But however, in Article 143(2), the word ‘shall’ has been used. Hence the Supreme Court is constitutionally obligated to give its opinion on a reference made by the President. The President cannot ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its previous decisions. It cannot convert its advisory jurisdiction into appellate jurisdiction.

Several references have been made to the Supreme Court under Art. 143(1), but none under Art. 143(2) which are as follows:

  1. In re the Delhi Laws Act[4], in 1951
  2. In re the Kerala Education Bill[5], in 1958
  3. In re Berubari[6], in 1960
  4. In re the Sea Customs Act[7], in 1962
  5. Keshav Singh’s case[8] in 1965
  6. In re Presidential Poll[9], in 1974
  7. In re the Special Courts Bill[10], in 1978
  8. Re In the matter of Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal[11], in 1992
  9. Re In the matter of Ram Janmabhoomi [12]
  10. Reference on the Principles and Procedure regarding the appointment of Supreme and High Court Judges[13] in 1998
  11. Gujarat Assembly Election Matter[14].
  12. In re the Gujarat Gas Act[15]

Revisory Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court under Art. 137 is empowered to review its own judgement or order. It is with the idea to remove the mistake or error in the judgement or order it has passed.

Power to do complete justice

Under Art. 142(1), in the exercise of its jurisdiction, the Supreme Court is entitled to pass any decree, or make any order, as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it.

Article 142(1) confers very wide powers on the Supreme Court to do complete justice in any case. The Court has given a broad and purposive interpretation of this provision. The jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court under Art. 142 are supplementary in nature and are provided for doing complete justice in any matter.

Article 142(1) contains no limitations and the exercise of the power is left completely to the discretion of the highest court. Referring to Art. 142(1), the Supreme Court in Supreme Court Bar Association v. Union of India[16], has characterised its own role in these words:

“Indeed the Supreme Court is not a court of restricted jurisdiction of only dispute-settling. The Supreme Court has always been a law-maker and its role travels beyond merely dispute-settling. It is a problem-solver in the nebulous areas”

No Supervisory Jurisdiction 

It is necessary to make clear that there is no supervisory jurisdiction that is given to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in the case of Tirupati Balaji Developers (P) Ltd v. State of Bihar[17] [18]discussed the constitutional scheme of the powers of the High Court and the Supreme Court.

 Some of the notable conclusions on the powers of the two Constitutional courts as laid down by the Supreme Court are as follows:

  • The High Court is not a court “subordinate” to the Supreme Court
  • The power to issue prerogative writs is wider with the High Courts than with the Supreme Court.
  • Power of superintendence is only granted to High Courts and not to the Supreme Court
  • What places the Supreme Court at a superior place in the hierarchy is that it is the highest court of appeal, law declared by it is binding on all Courts, it has the power to transfer cases from one High Court to another or to itself and Article 144, which requires all authorities including the High Court to act in aid of the Supreme Court.”

Thus, the Supreme Court recognized that in spite of having appellate powers, the Supreme Court has always used polite expressions while issuing directions to the High Court. This is because of institutional deference, there has hardly been any occasion where either the High Court or the Supreme Court has disrespected the other.

While interpreting the Fundamental Rights and other Constitutional provisions, at times, the Supreme Court has displayed judicial creativity of a very high order. The Court accepts that it has to play a law-creative role. Under Art. 141 the laws declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India.

To enable the Supreme Court and the High Courts to discharge their functions impartially, without fear or favour, the Constitution contains provisions to safeguard judicial independence.


By: Aparna Ramamoorthy


[1] AIR 1961 Mad 59.

[2] AIR 1978 SC 527.

[3] INDIA CONST. Art. 143

[4] 1951 SCR 747

[5] 1959 1 SCR 995

[6] AIR 1960 SC 845

[7] 1964 3 SCR 787

[8] AIR 1965 All 349

[9] 1975 1 SCR 504

[10] AIR 1979 SC 478

[11] AIR 1992 SC 522

[12] 1993 1 SCC 642

[13] AIR 1999 SC 1

[14] AIR 2003 SC 87

[15] 2004 4 SCC 489

[16] 1995 2 SCC 584.

[17] 2004 1 SCR 494.


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  • Sumita S. Sahu says:

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