The Bombay High Court – A Story Embedded in Stone
THE BOMBAY HIGH COURT
Standing tall and overlooking and the bustling Fort area of the city, the Bombay High Court remains an imposing structure, reminiscent of the long-gone colonial era. The resonating street noises are muffled inside the ambient quietude of the courtroom. Indoors, the silence is punctuated by the murmuring of its day-time occupants, the rustling regalia of lawyers as they rush past along with the buzzing of printers and keyboard clicks.
It is this institution that justice and integrity are preserved, a duty that has remained in continuance since its establishment in 1862. Being one of the oldest High Courts in the country, the Bombay High Court celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2003. I have had the privilege of accompanying my mother, a practicing High Court advocate, into the hallowed portals of the establishment. “This is just like Hogwarts,” her client had remarked in admiration as they ascended a spiraled flight of stairs.
I remain, till date, in agreement with that observance.
The legal history of the city and High Court have traversed a long-winding distance down the ages. This featurette is an endeavour to briefly trace the origins of the Court with insights into its architecture and the stalwarts that have graced it with their presence down the march of history.
Bombay’s legal history began in 1661, when the island town was gifted as dowry at the marriage of Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza with Charles II of England. Thus, it came under British possession and was leased to the East India Company in 1668.
The earliest court sittings were held in the Custom Houses of Bombay and Mahim. Gerald Aungier, Governor of Bombay, was dissatisfied with the prevailing judicial machinery and sought to make changes. Thus, the First British Court of Justice was inaugurated in 1672 with great pomp and show. George Wilcox was seated as its first judge. English laws gradually found favour over Portuguese rules and procedures.
The judicial system evolved from the Admiralty Court (1683) to the Recorder’s Court (1798) and the Supreme Court (1824 – 1862; not to be confused with the nation’s Apex Court). These courts had their own set of inadequacies (most notably the overpowering influence of executive).
From the ‘Indian High Court Act’ of 1861 stemmed the Charter of High Court of Bombay, which was issued on June 26, 1862. The official Bombay High Court website states that, “The Charter of the High Court also made it the supreme and final court of appeal in all cases, civil and criminal, decided by inferior courts, except such (cases)… demanding a further appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.”
The construction work of the present High Court building began in April 1871 and was completed in November 1878. Lieutenant-Colonel John Augustus Fuller of the Royal Engineers had fashioned the structure in the early English-Gothic design.
It was completed at the cost of Rs. 16,44,528, which was Rs. 2,668 less than the estimated cost. The basalt and sandstone of the walls and columns respectively along with the Porebunder stone of the roof parapets etch a figure of daunting solidity. And perched on the architectural marvel on octagonal towers of Coorla basalt, 120 feet above the ground, are the Statues of Justice and Mercy. While one stands blind-folded, holding a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in another, the more merciful counterpart reflects humility with her folded hands.
The interiors consist of Gothic arches and columns with the corridors running the complete length of each floor. A peculiar feature of the Court are the wall carvings of botanical motifs and a menagerie of animals, reptiles and birds.
There has been much curiosity regarding the strange depictions – a monkey judge with an eye-patch, foxes wearing lawyers’ gowns and so forth. Versions are aplenty. But there are no definitive answers.
THE STALWARTS’ DOMAIN
It has remained an enduring feature of the Bombay High Court that the best legal brains found expression in its lofty platforms. From the booming voice of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who defended Lokmanya Tilak in his sedition trail, the erudite oratory of Nani Palkhivala, the humble presence of Mahatma Gandhi (who opted for the public life as a better option) to the arguments of Fali Nariman, the constellation of the brightest stars illuminated the courtrooms.
Other prominent names include Soli Sorabjee, T. R. Andhyarujina, Ghulam Vahanvati, all to stride the Supreme Court later as the Attorney/Solicitor Generals of the country. The Benches of the Judges have seen no less the presence of legends. Their stellar judgements and brilliant minds have defined the lives and rights of people. These judges have remained the beacons of hope and justice for the common man, worthy of eulogies.
Notably amongst them were Justice Sujata Manohar (the Court’s first Lady Judge), Justice Lodha, former Chief Justice of India Y K Chadrachud and Madhukar H Kania.
The following list would remain incomplete without a special mention of Justice Lentin and his famous deliverance of his guiding tenet – “Strive always to keep alive within your breast the eternal flame called conscience.”
This ideal, the Bombay High Court intends to hold true for the years yet to come.