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Judicial Administration in Ancient and Early Medieval India

Posted January 29th, 2017 at 02:58 PM by Bhrigu

We have some political treatises from early medieval period of India which throw some light on the administration of justice. For example, Sukraniti of Sukra talks extensively on law and jurisdiction and gives us a somewhat clear idea of how justice was administered in classical and early medieval India. Other examples are Somadeva, Kamandaka and rest of the works on Nitisastra. (Sukra is the principle source for this post)
The writers of the Nitisastras tell us about these kind of courts:
1.) Kula: Kula were a group of relatives, both near and distant. In pre-modern India, families were usually joint and very large. Therefore if there was a dispute between 2 members of a family, it was usually settled by elders. Srenis were supposed to consider cases passed over by the Kulas, in case they failed to bring about any compromise. (Sukra, IV, 5, 30-31)

2.) Sreni: Srenis used to intervene in case the Kula courts failed to settle the dispute. Srenis were basically commercial guilds which had become a important part of corporate Indian life. Each guild had its own executive committee of 4 or 5 members.

3.) Gana: Gana courts were to review the cases decided by the Srenis. It was probably similar to the village Panchayat court, which exists even today. When even the Gana courts failed to give proper justice, the king and his jurors were to interfere.(Sukra, IV, 5, 30-31)

4.) Royal court: Only after a case was decided by the Gana and Sreni courts, it could approach the royal court, which was also the highest court. The king himself made the last decision on some occasions, but normally he appointed jurors to advise him:
i.) Chief Justice or Pradvivaka or Sabhapati was the next important member of the judicial administration after the king. He was required to be well-educated in the the law of procedure, substantive law and the sacred and customary law.
ii.) The Jurors or the Sabhyas: Sukra advises the king and the Pradvivaka to decide cases along with 3, 5 or 7 Sabhyas. [Sukra, IV, 5, 26] The jurors were required to be truthful, well-respected and well-educated in the Vedas & the Dharmasastras. The writers of Dharamsastras say that the Jurors should be selected from all the castes. Sukra also confirms this and says that the foresters are to be tried with the help of forester Sabhyas, soldiers with the help of soldier Sabhyas etc. (Sukra, IV, 5, 17), making it clear that the jurors were selected from all the castes. But the chief justice was required to be a Brahmin.

The trial:

The most important rule was that the trial must be held in public, and no case should be heard in secret either by king or by the chief justice. Any kind of private talk or communication with the parties was also not allowed, for both the kings and the juror council. The king & the chief justice were required to hear the opinion of the Sabhyas (jurors), and the Jurors were required to give a honest opinion, even if it angers the king. Both the king & the chief justice were meant to be impartial, and the texts condemn those kings who acts un-righteously or gets influenced by anger and greed. Sukra says that the king should maintain and enforce the customs current in society or he would become the subject of hatred. (Sukra, IV, 5, 47-48).

The judgement was to be in accordance with the Dharmasastras, and a chief justice who gives a decision contrary to the written law would be punished with a fine of thousand.(Sukra, IV, 5, 282) Sukra also says that the king who decides case in an arbitrary manner is a sinner, as he is supposed to administer justice according to the Dharmasastras (Sukra, IV, 5, 274)

The court staff consisted of a Lekhaka, who collected the court fees and recorded the statements of the parties involved. No amendment was permitted after the filing of the statement, and retrial could be possible only after depositing a fine (danda).(Sukra, IV, 5, 63)

For the trial, the officers of the king and the court staff recorded the available evidence, and evidence could not be recorded in the absence of one party. Both parties were required to be present during recording of the evidence. Sukra advises that the cases should not be decided on the basis of one kind of evidence, and efforts should be made to collect all kinds of evidence, i.e, oral, documentary etc.[Sukra, IV, 5, 168]
Evidence was to be carefully studied in the light of logic and inference. (Sukra, IV, 5, 5)

By the early medieval times, the profession of lawyer had started emerging in the Indian society. In its earliest form it is referred by Sukra. He tells us about a Tajna-Pratinidhi, whose job was to plead on behalf of the minors, old and ill persons and women. If the parties was not among the above categories, it could not appoint an Pratinidhi(Sukra, IV, 5, 110). Sukra also says that if the juror council considered a party to be incapable of defending itself, then it was allowed to have a Pratinidhi. The juror council tried to decide the case as soon as it can as delaying of justice was condemned by the Smritis.

All of that being said, only a small number of cases used to pass over to the royal court, and a majority of them were solved in the lower and popular courts such as the gana, sreni etc.

1.) Sukraniti, Sukra
2.) The Political Institution & Administration, Padma B. Udgaonkar
3.) Nitivakyamrita, Somdeva
4.) Socio-Economic Exploration of Medieval India, P.C. Jain.
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