Anusha Parthasarathy flips through the pages of history to trace the journey of the country’s oldest legal journal

The search for the country’s oldest surviving legal journal leads to a corporate office on Radhakrishnan Salai, where the Madras Law Journal (MLJ) is now being run by LexisNexis Butterworths Wadhwa. From there, it leads down V.M Street to Sanskrit College Street where an old Mylapore home, with its pyol and wooden stairs, is a living memory of this journal’s 121-year history.

R. Narayanaswamy, whose great-grandfather began the journal in 1891, still works out of this house, publishing popular Tamil magazines Kalaimagal and Manjari. “We weren’t the first to start a legal journal here. There was already one called the Madras Jurist, whose first volume was published in 1866. In 1877, its name was changed to Indian Jurist. But after a while, this journal was discontinued. I don’t know exactly when but they were still around when MLJ started,” he says, “Many senior lawyers of that time felt the need for a journal so when they met at the Saturday Club in Mylapore at S. Subrahmanya Aiyar’s house, somebody mooted the idea. There was Sir V. Bhashyam Aiyangar, V. Krishnaswami Aiyar (who was my great-grandfather), O.R. Sundara Aiyar, Sir V.C. Desikachariar, P.S. Sivaswami Aiyar and few others who started the MLJ.”

The need to start a legal journal was to provide a medium for the advancement of the ‘science of law’. The group also felt that the decisions of the High Courts were not always beyond question and criticism could help develop law on sound lines. But those who founded the journal found it very difficult to gather copies of judgments from the High Court. In the second edition of the MLJ, a complaint was made that the Chief Justice refused to part with copies of the judgments for publication. This was redressed later and permission was granted.

Rai Bahadur Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar, Sir C. Sankaran Nair, V. Krishnaswami Aiyar and P.R. Sundara Aiyar were the first editors of the journal. “The journal had articles on law, legislative measures, administration of law and justice, reports of important decisions of the High Court, notes of English cases and reviews of books,” he says. When V. Krishnaswami Aiyar passed away in 1911, his son-in-law R. Narayanaswami Aiyar took over the journal and became its proprietor. A bust of Narayanaswami Aiyar, garlanded, stands in the hall outside his grandson’s office. “He was my namesake,” says Narayanaswami, “and took care of the journal till he passed away in 1945. We started printing the quinquennial digest from 1914 onwards. When the Federal Court was formed in 1932, he started the Federal Law Journal. When the Supreme Court was established in 1951, he started the Supreme Court Journal. He even started the Civil Court Manual in 1927. Back then, there weren’t many cases and so the MLJ had criminal and civil cases in one volume. Now, they are separate books.”

The Journal’s press was located on Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street in an area of 10 grounds. “We had about 180 people working in the press, it was a fairly big one. My grandfather lived in this house and he would walk to the press. We started three magazines, Kalaimagal, Manjari and Kannan (for kids). We discontinued Kannan later. We’ve also published many law books such as Companies Act by A. Ramaiya, Limitation Act by U.N. Mitra, Hindu Law by N.R. Raghavachariar, Negotiable Instruments Act by Bashyam and Law of Limitation by C.G.V. Subba Rao. When we sold our press in 1985, we had to depend a lot on outside press and keeping weekly and bi-monthly deadlines became tough.”

After N. Ramaratnam succeeded his father in 1945, the journal had a brief tie-up with the All India Reporter to produce a 14-volume Fifty Years Digest, which had cases from 1901 to 1950. “We did the even volumes and they published the odd volumes and this happened between 1957 and 1965. A Centennial Digest was published in 10 volumes to commemorative 100 years of MLJ after I joined in 1976,” he adds.

Ramaratnam also started the MLJ Criminal in 1957, Andhra Weekly Reporter in 1955 and Company Law Journal in 1964. These were later stopped and only the criminal and civil journals continued to function. Narayanaswami sold the MLJ to Wadhwa Publications in 2006, a year after which the Nagpur-based group joined hands with LexisNexis Butterworths. “A lot of work goes into it and I couldn’t carry on. So, when the offer came, I sold it,” he says.

The Law Weekly was started in 1914 by V.C. Seshachariar and continues to exist where it began, nestled in the crevices of South Mada Street in Mylapore. V.C. Srikumar, who has been working with the journal since 1948, upholds the tradition his grandfather began 98 years ago. The journal reports judgments of the High Court and Supreme Court. V.C. Seshachariar spent all his time with the journal after he retired from active practice in 1929. In 1936, the journal was taken over by his youngest son V.C. Vasudevan (who ran it till 1966). Vasudevan launched the Law Weekly (Criminal), a monthly journal, in 1966. When he passed away, K.S. Desikan took over as the editor while V.C. Ramachandran succeeded his father as the publisher. Srikumar joined as the editor a few years later and started the Writ Law Reporter in 1984. The Law Weekly has changed with the times and even has a virtual presence. The copies also come in digitised versions.