Premier High Court at 150

The Bombay High Court has yielded illustrious judges and lawyers who contributed not only to its own standing but also to the prestige of the Supreme Court of India.

August 24, 2011 11:50 pm | Updated 11:52 pm IST

A SESQUICENTENARY: The construction of the magnificent Gothic-style building of the High Court was started in 1873 and completed in 1879. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

A SESQUICENTENARY: The construction of the magnificent Gothic-style building of the High Court was started in 1873 and completed in 1879. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1861, the Bombay High Court was established under the Indian High Courts Act, 1861, of the British Parliament. It abolished the old Supreme Court and the East India Company Courts and merged them in a new High Court. For these 150 years, the Bombay High Court has been India's premier High Court. It has yielded illustrious judges and lawyers who not only contributed to its own great standing but after Independence also contributed to the prestige of the Supreme Court of India.

The High Court's contribution to the law, jurisprudence and administration of justice has been immense. It was, therefore, with pride and satisfaction that on August 14, 2011, a number of distinguished judges and lawyers of the Supreme Court and the High Court, and Ministers of the State and Central governments, assembled in the famous Central Hall of the Bombay High Court to commemorate the 150th year of the High Court.


The Bombay High Court began functioning on August 14, 1862, with no pomp or ceremony, in the modest building of the old Supreme Court house. All that occurred on that historic occasion was an unpretentious declaration made by the English judges: “The judges appointed by the Charter of the High Court would seat as judges of the High Court from 11 a.m. till 2 p.m.” Thus began the historic life of this High Court. It was presided over by its first Chief Justice, Sir Mathew Sausse. He believed in such total detachment from the government and the public, and isolated himself to do justice, that he was known as “Sausse the Silent.”

A succession of 12 distinguished English Chief Justices followed him. The last British Chief Justice, Sir Leonard Stone, retired at midnight on August 14, 1947, after unfurling and saluting the Indian national flag in the High Court, with a gracious speech. He was succeeded by M.C. Chagla, the first Indian Chief Justice. He occupied that office with great distinction for 11 years. On the request of Jawaharlal Nehru he resigned, to become India's Ambassador to the United States.

The construction of the vast and magnificent Gothic-style building of the Bombay High Court, situated opposite the Oval playground, was started in 1873 and completed in 1879. The foundation tablet records that it was built at an incredibly low cost of Rs.16,44,528, which was below its estimated cost. The first sitting here was held on January 10, 1879. Its court rooms and corridors are spacious. It also has comical figures of monkey judges and fox advocates, wearing lawyer's bands with one eye blind-folded, peeping from the top of pillars. This was said to be the mischievous work of a disgruntled sub-contractor, a Parsi, who avenged himself on law and justice by libelling the lawyers and judges of the High Court. But the true symbol of justice is the stone statue of the Goddess of Justice on a tall tower of the building. She has both eyes blind-folded, to signify that justice is blind, with a sword in one hand and scales of justice meticulously balanced in the other.

Many famous trials and cases have been conducted in this historic court. Lokmanya Tilak was tried thrice for seditious writing in the Central Hall. On the second of his trials in 1909, when the jury returned a verdict of guilty and he was sentenced for six years in jail, he said the famous words that are today inscribed at the entrance to the Central Court: “All that I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I still maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of men and nations; and I think, it may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may be benefited more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue.”

There were some outstanding Indian judges of the Bombay High Court before Independence, such as Badruddin Tyabji, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Kashinath Trimbak Telang and Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar. They were not only erudite lawyers but also academicians and political thinkers known for their broad and liberal outlook. One instance to show this was the moving tribute paid by Badruddin Tyabji to his brother-judge Ranade on his death. He quoted the lines of Urfi, the court-poet of Emperor Jehangir: “Live thy life in such a manner that, on thy death, the Mussalman may wash thy body with the sacred waters of Zamzamat at Mecca and the Hindu may burn it on the holy ghats at Kashi.”

Making a mark

Amongst the lawyers who made their mark in the High Court were Sir Phirozshah Mehta, who was also a public figure, Bhulabhai Desai, K.M. Munshi, M.R. Jayakar, who later became a judge of the Federal Court and the Privy Council, and Sir Dinshaw Mulla, a writer of law books which are used even today. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a fighting advocate in the Bombay High Court known for his blunt advocacy. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a lawyer with a good knowledge of Constitutional Law, was later the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India. Sir Jamshedji Kanga was the doyen of the Bar for many years. From his chambers were groomed distinguished lawyers such as H.M. Seervai, the leading constitutional expert, and Nani Palkhiwala, the country's most versatile and eloquent advocate.

The Supreme Court's first Chief Justice of India in 1950 was Sir Hiralal Kania from the Bombay High Court. Since then, a succession of distinguished Chief Justices of the Supreme Court have come from the Bombay High Court — including the present Chief Justice of India, S.H. Kapadia. The first law officers of the Government of India hailed from the Bombay High Court. Sir N.P. Engineer was the first Advocate-General of India; M.C. Setalvad was the first Attorney-General of India, and C.K. Daphtary, the first Solicitor-General of India. Even later, distinguished lawyers from the Bombay High Court have been the law officers of the Union government in the Supreme Court. No single High Court has had such an eminent array of persons from the Bar and the Bench as the Bombay High Court has had.

The Bombay High Court has passed through many vicissitudes in its 150 years. So long as those who work in and for it are conscious of its high traditions and connections, it will retain its stature — for in the words of the Bible, it was founded on Rock.

( The writer, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, is a former Solicitor-General of India and Advocate-General of Maharashtra .)

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