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Introduction to India's Legal System

India is a federation of 28 states and 7 Union Territories.  The President is the head of the Union executive.  He acts on the advice of the Union cabinet headed by a prime minister who is responsible to the parliament of India.  The parliament is bicameral: Council of States or Upper House whose main membership is elected by state legislatures and the House of People or Lower House consisting of members elected directly by the people in general elections.  The democratic system operates in a manner similar to the British system of parliamentary democracy.

A single integrated system of courts administers both union and state laws.  The common law system in India is a legacy of the British where the doctrine of stare decisis rules.  The Supreme Court of India, seated in New Delhi, is the highest court in the entire judicial system.  Each state, or a group of them, has a High Court, which is also a court of record and exercises administrative control over the subordinate judiciary.  It, too, has the power to issue writs in exercise of extraordinary jurisdiction and is the appellate court from decisions of the lower courts in the state.

Each state is divided into districts where the Court of District and Sessions Judge is the highest court.  He has dual role.  As a District Judge, he adjudicates in civil disputes and as Sessions Judge, he adjudicates criminal disputes.  Below him are Sub-Judges for civil cases and Magistrates for criminal cases.  The Chief Judicial Magistrate, in criminal matters, and Senior Sub-Judge, on the civil side, with lower rungs of magistrates and sub-judges, constitute the district level judiciary under the superintendence of the District Court.  Thus, there are four tiers of judiciary.

Other quasi-judicial tribunals (e.g., labor tribunal, administrative tribunal) function to grant relief in labor disputes or decide grievances of civil servants.  A chart of hierarchical structure of courts is given below.

Organization Chart

Official Sources of Law

The sources of laws include the Constitution of India, central statutes, state laws, and regulations framed under those laws.  The official publication of laws of India is contained in the India Code.  It is compilation of unrepealed Acts or laws enacted by the parliament of India and are organized chronologically.  Its new publication began in the year 2000.  The Law Library of Congress has received the last volume, No. 20, which contains the Acts through 1955 as amended.

Acts of each year are bound and are available as “Acts of India.”  In addition, India also publishes its individual Acts, which the parliament enacts from time to time.  They are available unbound from the parliament of India or the Government Printing Press in Delhi.

After the adoption of the Constitution of India on November 26, 1949, a large volume of subordinate legislation also has come into being, which are published by the Government as “General Statutory Rules and Orders.”  They are designed as a companion volume to the India Code and seek to bring together all extant notifications, rules and orders issued under Central Acts.  They follow the classification of Acts in the India Code and reproduce under the relevant Acts all the rules and orders.  Like the India Code, it is a multi-volume set and is updated periodically by Supplements.

Decisions of the Supreme Court of India and state High Courts are regularly published.  Since stare decisis rules in common law systems, its value cannot be underestimated.  Supreme Court Reports (S.C.R.) is an official publication of the Supreme Court decisions.  Similarly, Indian Law Reports (I.L.R.) of each High Court publishes decisions of the respective High Court.  Both of them are available quarterly.

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Print Sources

The Law Library of Congress collections hold almost all official and private law reports published in India.  The collections also contain old colonial period decisions of the Privy Council when decisions of courts in India were appealed to the Privy Council.  These law reports include Law Reports, Privy (I. App.) and Indian Appeals (I.A.).  Some of those decisions are available in the reporter, Indian Cases (Indian Cas.).  All law reports in the Law Library collections are too numerous to be listed individually. However, one important one is the All India Reporter (A.I.R.), which is the most extensively used and publishes separately decisions of each High Court and the Supreme Court of India.  Other helpful ones include Supreme Court Cases (S.C.C.), Accidents Claims Journal, and All India Criminal Law Criminal Law Reporter (A.I.R. Crim.).

Web Resources

For more information on India see:

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Last Updated: 06/09/2015