UPSC Indian Polity and Civics The State Judiciary Judiciary


Category : UPSC





Contents of the Chapter

  • Introduction
  • Why do we need an independent Judiciary?
  • Independence of Judiciary
  • Appointment of Judges
  • Structure of the Judiciary
  • Original Jurisdiction
  • Unsuccessful Attempt to Remove a Judge
  • Write Jurisdiction
  • Appellate Jurisdiction
  • Advisory Jurisdiction
  • Judiciary and Rights
  • Judiciary and Parliament
  • Conclusion



Many times, courts are seen only as arbitrators in disputes between individuals or private parties. But judiciary performs some political functions also. Judiciary is an important organ of the government. The Supreme Court of India is in fact, one of the very powerful courts in the world. Right from 1950 the judiciary has played an important role in interpreting and in protecting the Constitution. In this chapter you will study the role and importance of the judiciary.


Why do we need an Independent Judiciary?

In any society, disputes are bound to arise between individuals, between groups and between individuals or groups and between individuals or groups and government. All such disputes must be settled by an independent body in accordance with the principle of rule of law.


This idea of rule of law implies that all individuals- rich and poor, men or women, forward or backward castes-are subjected to the same law.


The principal role of the judiciary is to protect rule of law and ensure supremacy of law. It safeguards rights of the individual, settles dispute in accordance with the law and ensures that democracy does not give way to individual or group dictatorship. In order to be able to do all this, it is necessary that the judiciary is independent of any political pressures.


Independence of Judiciary

Simply stated independence of judiciary means that

  • The other organs of the government like the executive and legislature must not restrain the functioning of the judiciary in such a way that it is unable to do justice.
  • The other organs of the government should not interfere with the decision of the judiciary.
  • Judges must be able to perform their functions without fear or favour.


Independence of the Judiciary does not imply arbitrariness or absence of account- ability. Judiciary is a part of the democrat political structure of the country. It is therefore accountable to the Constitution, to the democrat traditions and to the people of the country.


The Indian Constitution has ensured the independence of the judiciary through a number of measures. The legislature is not involved in the process of appointment of judges. Thus, it was believed that party polities would not play a role in the process of appointments, in order to be appointed as a judge, a person must have experience as a lawyer and/or must be well versed in law. Political opinions of the person or his/her political loyalty should not be the criteria for appointments to judiciary.


The judges have a fixed tenure. They hold office till reaching the age of retirement. Only in exceptional cases, judges may be removed. But otherwise, they have security of tenure. Security of tenure ensures that judges could function without fear or favour. The Constitution prescribes a very difficult procedure for removal of judges. The Constitution makers believed that a difficult procedure of removal would provide security of office to the members of judiciary.


The judiciary is not financially dependent on either the executive or legislature. The Constitution provides that the salaries and allowances of the judges are not subjected to the approval of the legislature. The actions and decisions of the judges are immune from personal criticisms. The judiciary has the power to penalize those who are found guilty of contempt of court. This authority of the court is seen as an effective protection to the judges from unfair criticism. Parliament cannot discuss the conduct of the judges except when the proceeding to remove a judge is being carried out. This gives the judiciary independence to adjudicate without fear of being criticized.



The appointment of judges has never been free from political controversy, it is part of the political process. It makes a difference who serves in the Supreme Court and High Court a difference in how the Constitution is interpreted. The political philosophy of the judges, their views about active and assertive judiciary or controlled and committed judiciary have an impact on the fate of the legislations enacted. Council of Ministers, Governors and Chief Ministers and Chief Justice of India-all influence the process of judicial appointment.


As far as the appointment of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is concerned, over the years, a convention had developed whereby the senior most judge of the Supreme Court was appointed as the Chief Justice of India. This convention was however broken twice. In 1973 A. N. Ray was appointed as CJI superseding three senior Judges. Again, Justice M.H. Beg was appointed superseding Justice H.R. Khanna (1975).


The other Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court are appointed by the President after ‘consulting’ the CJL This, in effect, meant that the final decisions in matters of appointment rested with the Council of Ministers.


This matter came up before the Supreme Court again and again between 1982 and 1998. Initially, the court felt that role of the Chief Justice was purely consultative. Then it took the view that the opinion of the Chief Justice must be followed by the President. Finally, the Supreme Court has come up with a novel procedure: it has suggested that the Chief Justice should recommend names of persons to be appointed in consultation with four senior-most judges of the Court. Thus, the Supreme Court has established the principle of collegiality in making recommendations for appointments. At the moment therefore, in matters of appointment the decision of the group of senior judges of the Supreme Court carries greater weight. Thus, in matters of appointment to the judiciary, the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers play an important role.


Removal of Judges

The removal of judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court’s is also extremely difficult. A judge of the Supreme Court or High Court can be removed only on the ground of proven misbehavior or incapacity. A motion containing the charges against the judge must be approved by special majority in both Houses of the Parliament. Removal of a Judge is a very difficult procedure and unless there is a general consensus among Members of the Parliament, a judge cannot be removed, it should also be noted that while in making appointments, the executive plays a crucial role; the legislature has the powers of removal. This has ensured both balance of power and independence of the judiciary. So far, only one case of removal of a judge of the Supreme Court came up for consideration before the Parliament. In that case, though the motion got two-thirds majority, it did not have the support of the majority of the total strength of the House and therefore, the judge was not removed.


Structure of the Judiciary

The Constitution of India provides for a single integrated judicial system. This means that unlike some other federal countries of the world. India does not have separate State courts. The structure of the judiciary in India is pyramidal with the Supreme Court at the top. High Courts below them and district and subordinate courts at the lowest level. The lower courts function under the direct superintendence of the higher courts.


Jurisdiction of Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of India is one of the very powerful courts anywhere in the world. However, it functions within the limitations imposed by the Constitution. The functions and responsibilities of the Supreme Court are defined by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has specific jurisdiction or scope of powers.



Original jurisdiction means cases that can be directly considered by the Supreme Court without going to the lower courts before that. Cases involving federal relations go directly to the Supreme Court. The Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court establishes it as an umpire in all disputes regarding federal matters-. In any federal country, legal disputes are bound to arise between the Union and the States; and among the States themselves. The-power to resolve such cases is entrusted to the Supreme Court of India. It is called original jurisdiction because the Supreme Court alone has the power to deal with such cases. Neither the High Court’s nor the lower courts can deal with such cases. In this capacity, the Supreme Court not just settles disputes but also interprets the powers of Union and State government as laid down in the Constitution.


Unsuccessful Attempt to Remove a Judge

In 1991 the first-ever motion to remove a Supreme Court Justice was signed by 108 members of Parliament. Justice Ramaswamy, during his tenure as the Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court was accused of misappropriating funds. In 1992, a year after the Parliament had started the impeachment proceedings, a high profile inquiry commission consisting of Judges of Supreme Court found Justice V. Ramaswamy “guilty of willful and gross misuses of office. . . and moral turpitude by using public funds for private purposes and Haryana. Despite this strong indictment. Ramaswamy survived the parliamentary motion recommending his removal got the required two-third majority among the members who were present and voting, but the Congress party abstained from voting in the House. Therefore, the motion could not get the support of one-half of the total strength of the House.


Writ Jurisdiction

Any individual, whose fundamental right has been violated, can directly move the Supreme Court for remedy. The Supreme Court can give special orders in the form of writs.


The High Courts can also issue writs, but the persons whose rights are violated have the choice of either approaching the High Court or approaching the Supreme Court directly. Through such writs, the Courts can give orders to the executive to act or not to act in a particular way.



The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal. A person can appeal to the Supreme Court against the decisions of the High Court.  However, High Court must certify that the case is fit for appeal, that is to say that it involves a serious matter of interpretation of law or Constitution. In addition, in criminal cases, if the lower court has sentenced a person to death then an appeal can be made to the High Court or Supreme Court. Of course, the Supreme Court holds the powers to decide whether to admit appeals even when appeal is not allowed by the High Court. Appellate Jurisdiction means that the Supreme Court will reconsider the case and the legal issues involved in it. If the Court thinks that the law or the Constitution has a different meaning from what the lower courts understood, then the supreme Court will change the ruling and along with that also give new interpretation of the provision involved.


Article 137...... the Supreme Court shall have power to review any judgment pronounced or I order made by it. Article 144........ All authorities, civil and judicial, in the territory of India shall act in aid of the Supreme Court.


The High Court’s too, have appellate jurisdiction over the decisions given by courts below them.



In addition to original and appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of India possesses advisory jurisdiction also. This means that the President of India can refer any matter that is of public importance or that which involves interpretation of Constitution to Supreme Court for advice. However, the Supreme Court is not bound to give advice on such matters and the President is not bound to accept such an advice.


What then is the utility of the advisory powers of the Supreme Court? The utility is two- fold. In the first place, it allows the government to seek legal opinion on a matter of importance before taking action on it. This may prevent unnecessary litigations later. Secondly, in the light of the advice of the Supreme Court, the government can make suitable changes in its action or legislations.


Read the articles quoted above. These articles help us to understand the unified nature of our judiciary and the powers of the Supreme Court. Decisions made by the Supreme Court are binding on all other courts within the territory of India. Orders passed by it are enforceable throughout the length and breadth of the country. The Supreme Court itself is not bound by its decision and can at any time review it. Besides, if there is a case of contempt of the Supreme Court, then the Supreme Court itself decides such a case.



The judiciary is entrusted with the task of protecting rights of individuals. The Constitution provides two ways in which the Supreme Court can remedy the violation of rights.

  • First it can restore fundamental rights by issuing writs of Habeas Corpus; mandamus etc. (article 32). The High Courts also have the power to issue such writs (articles 226).
  • Secondly, the Supreme Court can declare the concerned law as unconsti-tutional and therefore .non-operational (article 13).


Together these two provisions of the Constitution establish the Supreme Court as the protector of fundamental rights of the citizen on the one hand and interpreter of Constitution on the-other.-The second of the two ways mentioned above involves judicial review.


Perhaps the most important power of the Supreme Court is the power of judicial review. Judicial Review means the power of the Supreme Court (or High Courts) to examine the constitutionality of any law if the Court arrives at the conclusion that the law is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, such a law is declared as unconstitutional and inapplicable. The term judicial review is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. However, the fact-that India has a written constitution and the Supreme Court can strike down a law that goes against fundamental rights, implicitly gives the Supreme Court the power of judicial review.


Besides, as we saw in the section on jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, in the case of federal relations too, the Supreme Court can use the review powers if a law is inconsistent with the distribution of powers laid down by the Constitution. Suppose, the central government makes a law which according to some States, concerns a subject from the State list. Then the States can go to the Supreme Court and if the court agrees with them, it would declare that the law is unconstitutional. In this sense, the review power of the Supreme Court includes power to review legislations on the ground that they violate fundamental rights or on the ground that they violate the federal distribution of powers. The review power extends to the laws passed by State legislations also. Together, the writ powers and the review power of the Court make judiciary very powerful. In particular, the review power means that the judiciary can interpret the Constitution and the laws passed by the legislature. Many people think that this feature enables the judiciary to protect the Constitution effectively and also to protect the rights of citizens. The practice of entertaining PILS has further added to the powers of the judiciary in protecting rights of citizens.


Right against exploitation? This right prohibits forced labour, trade in human flesh and prohibits employment of children in hazardous jobs. But the question is: how could those, whose rights were violated, approach the court? PIL and judicial activism made it possible for courts to consider these violations. Thus, the court considered a whole set of cases: the blinding of the jail inmates by the police, inhuman working conditions in stone quarries, sexual exploitation of children, and so on. This trend has made rights really meaningful for the poor and disadvantaged sections.



Apart from taking a very active stand on the matter of rights, the court has been active in seeking to prevent subversion of the Constitution through political practice. Thus, areas that were considered beyond the scope of judicial review such as powers of the President and Governor were brought under the purview of the courts.


There are many other Instances in which the Supreme Court actively involved itself in the administration of justice by giving directions to executive agencies. Thus, it gave directions to CBI to initiate investigations against politicians and bureaucrats in the hawala case, the Narasimha Rao, case, illegal allotment of petrol pumps case etc. Many of these instances are the products of judicial activism.


The Indian Constitution is based on a delicate principle of limited separation of powers and checks and balances. This means that each organ of the government has a dear area of functioning. Thus, the Parliament is supreme in making laws and amending the Constitution, the executive is supreme in implementing them while the judiciary is supreme in settling disputes and deciding whether the laws that have been made are in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Despite such clear cut division of power the conflict between the Parliament and judiciary, and executive and the judiciary has remained a recurrent theme in Indian politics.


Immediately after the implementation of the Constitution began, a controversy arose over the Parliament's power to restrict right to property. The Parliament wanted to put some restrictions on the right to hold properly so that land reforms could be implemented. The Court held that the Parliament cannot thus restrict fundamental rights. The Parliament then tried to amend the Constitution. But the Court said that even through an amendment, a fundamental right cannot be abridged. The following issues were at the centre of the controversy between the Parliament and the judiciary.


  • What is the scope of right to private property?
  • What is the scope of the Parliament's power to curtail, abridge or abrogate fundamental rights?
  • What is the scope of the Parliament’s power to amend the constitution?
  • Can the Parliament make laws that abridge fundamental rights while enforcing directive principles?


During the period 1967 and 1973, this controversy became very serious. Apart from land reform laws, laws enforcing preventive detention, laws governing reservations in jobs, regulations acquiring private property for public purposes, and laws deciding the compensation for such acquisition of private property were some instances of the conflict between the legislature and the judiciary.


In 1973, the Supreme Court gave a decision that has become very important in regulating the relations between the Parliament and the Judiciary since then.


This case is famous as the Kesavananda Bharati case. In this case, the Court ruled that there is a basic structure of the Constitution and nobody- not even the Parliament (through amendment)- can violate the basic structure. The Court did two more things. First, it said that right to property (the disputed issue) was not part of basic structure and therefore could be suitably abridged. Secondly, the Court reserved to itself the right to decide whether various matters are part of the basic structure of the Constitution. This case is perhaps the best example of how judiciary uses its power to interpret the Constitution. This ruling has changed the nature of conflicts between the legislature and the judiciary, the right to property was taken away from the list of fundamental rights in 1979 and this also helped in changing the nature of the relationship between these two organs of government.


Some issues still remain a bone of contention between the two- can the judiciary intervene in and regulate the functioning of the legislatures? In the parliamentary system, the legislature has the power to govern itself and regulate the behavior of its members. Thus, the legislature can punish a person who the legislature holds guilty of breaching privileges of the legislature. Can a person who is held guilty for breach of parliamentary privileges seek protection of the courts? Can a member of the legislature against whom the legislature has taken disciplinary action get protection from the court? These issues are unresolved and are matters of potential conflict between the two. Similarly, the Constitution provides that the conduct of judges cannot be discussed in the Parliament. There have been several instances where the Parliament and State legislature have cast aspersions on the functioning of the judiciary. Similarly, the judiciary too has criticized the legislatures and issued instructions to the legislatures about the conduct of legislative business. The legislature see this as violating the principle of parliamentary sovereignty,


These issues indicate how delicate the balance between any two organs of the government is and how important it is for each organ of the government in a democracy to respect the authority of others.



We have studied the role of the judiciary in our democratic structure. In spite of the tensions that arose from time to time between the judiciary and the executive and the legislature, the prestige of the judiciary has increased considerably. At the same time, there are many more expectations from the judiciary. Ordinary citizens also wonder how it is possible for many people to get easy acquittals and how witnesses change their testimonies to suit the wealthy and the mighty. These are some issues about which our judiciary is concerned too. The Judiciary in India is a very powerful institution. This power has generated much awe and many hopes from it. Judiciary in India is also known for its independence. Through various decisions, the judiciary has given new interpretations to the Constitution and protected the rights of citizens. As we saw in this chapter, democracy hinges on the delicate balance of power between the judiciary and the Parliament and both institutions have to function within the limitations set by the Constitution.

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