Mumbai Local

Doing justice to Bombay High Court

Still beautiful:The 138-year-old Bombay High court building some time after it was constructed (left), and the way it looks now.Photos: Special Arrangement/ Vivek Bendre  

Of South Bombay’s beautiful heritage structures, the Bombay High Court building, completed in 1878, is the most remarkable. It is not just a beautiful building; what makes it special is the performance of some of the most remarkable men who have shaped the history of India, some great jurists, and men who have made a lasting contribution to arts and literature, and above all, independent and fearless judges — both Indian and British — who have decided cases without fear or favour, on the basis of the laws and merits of the case. The traditions built up over more than 150 years are intrinsically associated with the High Court building. Its corridors, courtrooms and libraries remind new entrants to the profession of these traditions and of their responsibilities as lawyers.

On the occasion of the Bombay High Court’s sesquicentennial (the building is 138 years old, but the court will turn 154 on August 14), in a book on the High Court Building, the then-Chief Justice, C.K. Thakkar, had this to say, “There is a view shared by many architects that the quality of a building informs the work that is done inside. If true, there can be no greater testimonial to the men who built the edifice of the Bombay High Court; for this institution has produced what can only be described as a galaxy of legal talent.”

To name just a few stars in that galaxy: Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, M.A. Jinnah, M.C. Chagla, Badruddin Tyabji, M.R. Jaykar, Sir Dinshaw Mulla, Motilal Setalvad, C.K. Daphtary, Sir Jamshedji Kanga, Nani Palkhivala, Seervai, K.M. Munshi, Goverdhanram Tripathi, M.G. Ranade, K.T. Telang, P.B. Gajendragadkar, Y.V. Chandrachud, H.J. Kania (first Chief Justice of independent India), P.N. Bhagwat and Mahamahopadhyay Kane.

The famous Tilak trials a hundred years ago took place in its Central Courtroom. An aura of justice permeates this building; the history of the judiciary and the work of some of the most famous lawyers of this country is in a sense engraved on its stones. It was said of King Vikramaditya’s judgment seat that anybody who sat on it could not but do justice. One hopes one can say the same thing about this building.

It is also an unusual building in other ways. The carvings on its pillars display a sense of humour so essential for a balanced outlook on life: there are monkey judges with one eye open, holding precariously the tilted scales of justice; there are foxes wearing lawyer’s bands and snakes in the grass smiling at the court; and there are also carvings of different communities which frequented the High Court. (It is interesting that the architect of the High Court building, Fuller, who also designed the G.T. Hospital building, has similar caricatures of doctors on the pillars of G.T. Hospital.)

So it was with astonishment that one read about some recent comments made in the High Court, in the course of a hearing, that heritage should take a backseat when considering the pressing requirements of the present day.

Unfortunately the real value of traditions and heritage are realised only when they are lost. It would be not just short-sighted but also foolish to throw away centuries of priceless traditions in search of square footage. We must take a broader view.

The government is now going to change the name of the High Court — a change described as cosmetic and purposeless by a former advocate-general — but that has no connection with meeting its pressing problem. That problem is one that a number of heritage buildings face: they are not large enough to accommodate the increase in work-load and modern-day needs.

However, many such structures have succeeded in accommodating these needs without destroying their heritage.

While the Bombay High Court must accommodate the expanding needs of a modern High Court, it is in the fortunate position of being able to expand by making use of some of its surrounding buildings. Some administrative requirements are already being met by buildings other than the main High Court edifice. The PWD building has already been given to the High Court. Another more recent building, the High Court Annexe, can be redesigned. And there is the Central Telegraph Office building, across the road, which can accommodate some expansion. What is needed is an imaginative master plan, by experts in the field, to expand the High Court around its court building.

Assuming that a big tract of land and the huge finances that may be required are available, the ‘simplest’ thing anyone can suggest is shifting to a completely new location. This would meet the needs of space, but it cannot replace long built-up traditions and even the halo of working in the temples of justice. It means abandoning traditions, abandoning heritage.

It is also not easy to create a new township consisting of court buildings, administrative buildings, offices of the court receiver and other court officials, chambers of a large population of lawyers and residences for judges and their staff, court officers and other court employees. And to breathe traditions and values into such a township may take a century, if not more, and the dedicated work of many outstanding judges and lawyers. Many alternatives are possible and it is essential to consider suitable alternatives worked out by experts that combine heritage and modern needs. In 1997, the then-Chief Justice constituted a heritage committee to preserve and plan for the future of this building; it is time to revive this committee.

The author has been a Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court and a Supreme Court judge.



Heritage buildings face a common problem: they are not large enough for today's increased workload





The famous Tilak trials held a a hundred years ago took place in the Bombay High Court's Central Courtroom



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