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Conflict between Supreme Court and Supreme Council

Supreme court of Judicature at Fort William was established on October 22, 1774 in Calcutta, Bengal. It was authorized by the Regulating act of 1773. This court replaced the Mayor's Court[1], which was functioning in Calcutta since 1753. In 1862, When the High Court of Calcutta got established by the Indian High Courts Act of 1861[2], until then, the supreme court of judicature was British India's highest court.

Under the regulating act of 1773, Supreme Council of Bengal was also formed in Calcutta in 1773. It was known as the highest level of executive government in British India until 1833. This council was headed by the Governor General and consisted of 5 members including the Governor General himself. The council was also known as Governor-General-in-council. The council was formally subordinate to the British crown and Court of Directors, a board of East India Company.

History Of Conflicts:

The first 6-8 years after the establishment of Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta, is known for the conflicts between the Governor-General-in-council and the Supreme Court. Some of those conflicts are mentioned here:

Conflicts over Court's Jurisdiction:
The jurisdiction of the supreme court was defined in the Regulating Act of 1773 but certain issues were not clear in the act and those issues were creating doubts. This became the cause of a bitter conflict between the court and the council. According to the Regulating act of 1773, the supreme court's official penned jurisdiction was All British subjects in Bengal and anyone employed under the said United company, directly or indirectly. Since, the term Directly or Indirectly could be applied to almost everyone who worked under the company, the conflict between the court and the Governor-General-in-Council was inevitable in nature.

Supreme court, after its establishment in 1774, claimed its jurisdiction over any person residing in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, from 1774 to 1782.This became the reason of a bitter conflict between the supreme court and the Governor-General-in-Council for eight long years. When the Bengal Judicature act of 1781 was passed in June 1782, the conflict finally came to an end in 1782. Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was restricted to either those, who lived in Calcutta or to any British subject residing in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, by the Bengal Judicature act of 1781. The act removed the controversial jurisdiction of Supreme Court over any person residing in Bengal, Odisha and Bihar.

From 1775 to 1780, there were several disputed cases, which created conflicts between the Governor-General-in-council and the Supreme Court. These cases became the source of conflicts between the court and council over jurisdiction of various subjects. Some of those cases have been mentioned here.

Case Of Kamaluddin (1775):

The case of Kamaluddin was the first case to display an open conflict between the Governor-General-in-Council and the Supreme court regarding the jurisdiction of various subjects. According to the facts of this case, Kamaluddin was holding a salt farm in Hugli (Bengal) which originally belonged to another person named Kanta Babu. Kamaluddin was just an ostensible holder of the farm and was holding the farm on the behalf of Kanta Babu. Kamaluddin was imprisoned because he was issued a writ to his committal to the prison without bail by the Revenue Council. He was in the prison without bail because arrears of revenue was due from his side in 1775.

In such cases at that time, it was according to the custom to release the imprisoned persons on bail. Later, the defendant, i.e., Kamaluddin appealed in the supreme court for a writ of Habeas Corpus[3]. Supreme court headed by chief justice Elijah Impey gave its decision in the favour of the defendant and Kamaluddin was set free by the court on bail after he obtained the writ of Habeas Corpus. The court, in its judgement, held that the defendant, in the cases of disputed accounts, should be granted bail till the inquiry regarding his obligation to pay is completed and he is found liable.

As expected, Supreme council headed by Warren Hastings, the Governor General expressed its dissatisfaction on the judgement of Supreme court. The Council stated that the supreme council had its jurisdiction over the officers of Calcutta Revenue Council as the company was Diwan of the territories of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar and the court was not empowered to judge a matter related to the revenue. Therefore, according to the council, the court had no power to issue a writ of Habeas corpus to the defendant and grant him bail.

However, Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Court, opposed the view of the council. He stated that the revenue officers were also the servant of the company and therefore, on this ground, the jurisdiction over the revenue officers can be claimed by the supreme court.

Again, the council expressed its dissatisfaction on the view of supreme court and 4 out of 5 members of the supreme council decided to order the provincial Council to put the defendant again in the prison without paying attention to any of the orders of the Supreme Court. But, Warren Hastings, the Governor General didn't pay any heed to these decisions and hence, they couldn't be implemented.

Cossijurah (Kasijurah) Case (1779):

The Cossijurah Case was one of most contentious cases in the history of supreme court of Bengal. This is the case after which the conflicts between the Council and the supreme court reached to its Climax. The Act of Settlement, 1781, also known as, The Bengal Judicature Act of 1781, was one of the consequences of this case, which played a key role in settling the conflicts between the court and the council regarding jurisdiction.

According to the facts of this case, Raja Sundernarain was a Zamindar of Kasijurah (Cossijurah), Orissa. He was under a very heavy debt to Kashinath, a principal merchant of Calcutta. After trying several unsuccessful ways to recover the money from Raja, Kashinath, On 13th August, 1779, filed a debt suit against Raja in the Supreme Court of Bengal on the ground that Raja, a Zamindar of Cossijurah, was collecting revenue, in the service of the company and therefore, comes under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. As a decision, The Supreme Court issued a writ of capias for Raja's Arrest.

Raja, by hiding himself, avoided the service of the writ. Meanwhile, the Supreme council headed by Warren Hastings, the Governor General, after doing consultation with its Advocate General, informed all the Zamindars of Kasijurah including Raja to not pay any heed to the Court's orders. Also, the Supreme Council directed the collector of Midanpur (a district in Orissa) to refuse any kind of assistance to the Sheriff and his men. So, when the sheriff went to Cossijurah to arrest Raja for the purpose of serving the writ, the sheriff was drove away by Raja and his people.

The Collector also didn't provide any assistance to them. After some days, the Supreme Court issued the writ of sequestration to seize the effects of the Raja's house. When the sheriff went to Cossijurah to serve the writ, Colonel Ahmity (Commanding Officer at Midanpur) was directed by the council to send his troops to arrest sheriff and his men. As a result, Sheriff and his men were arrested by the troops of Colonel. For the matter of fact, they were later released by the council. Later, Kashiram brought a suit against the members of the Council in the Supreme Court. But, when the things reached at a critical stage, he withdrew his suit.

There were several issues involved in this case regarding the jurisdiction of the court and the council. To resolve those issues, a parliamentary committee was appointed, which later presented a detailed report before the parliament. As a result, The Act of Settlement, 1781 was passed by the parliament.

Initial years of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal was very controversial. Several conflicts between the Governor-General-in-Council and the supreme court was recorded in these years. Most of these conflicts were in regards to the jurisdiction of various subjects. The disputed cases like the Case of Kamaluddin, The Patna Case[4], Cossijurah Case, etc. displayed the conflicts over jurisdiction between the council and the court at a great extent.

And, this series of conflicts went on like this until the Bengal Judicature act of 1781 was passed. It defined the jurisdiction of supreme court in relation with the council and settled the conflicts between the Governor-General-in-Council and the Supreme Court.

  3. Habeas Corpus is a recourse in law through which an unlawful detention and imprisonment can be reported to the court by a person. Also, the person can request the court to bring him/her before the court so that whether the detention is lawful or not, can be determined by the court.

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