According to the Constitution of India, India is a democratic nation with a parliamentary form of government and an independent judiciary, which is separate in terms of powers and areas of responsibility from the legislature and the executive. Even though the governance system is relatively federal in nature, the Constitution designed a unified judicial system for the entire nation. The courts are organised broadly as set out in the diagram below.
The Supreme Court is the highest constitutional court as well as the highest court of appeal. It has both original, appellate and advisory jurisdictions, as well as the power to review.
Original jurisdiction constitutes the power to adjudicate disputes between the union government and one or more states or between two or more states (Article 131) and enforce fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution by issuing directions or writs such as habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari (Article 32).
It hears appeals from judgments, decrees or final orders (in criminal, civil, or other proceedings)passed by the High Courts when they certify that substantial questions of law are involved (Articles 132–134-A). It also has the discretion to grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence, or order in any matter passed by any court or tribunal (Article 136). Further, it hears criminal appeals where the death sentence has been awarded (Article 134).
In addition, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to provide opinions on any question of law or fact of public importance referred to it by the President of India (Article 143), as well as the power to review its own judgments or orders (Article 137).
Notably, the law declared by the Supreme Court through its judgments is binding on all courts in India (Article 141).
The High Courts are the highest courts of law in the state or union territory in which they are situated or have jurisdiction. Their judgments have legal effect within the territories of the states and/or union territories over which they have jurisdiction.
The High Courts hear civil and criminal appeals from subordinate courts under their control. The High Courts of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras however have original jurisdiction in civil cases of certain monetary value. Every High Court has original jurisdiction in revenue matters (Article 225) as well as those relating to admiralty, matrimony, probate, contempt of court and election petitions. Significantly, other than the Supreme Court, High Courts are the only courts entrusted with writ jurisdiction for enforcing fundamental rights as well as for other purposes under the Constitution (Article 226). This jurisdiction of the High Courts is wider than that of the Supreme Court.
High Courts have the supervisory authority over the district and sessions courts, other subordinate courts, and tribunals within the territory of each state (Article 227).
The district and sessions courts are the highest judicial authorities in a district. The judges presiding over this court are called district judges when they decide civil cases and sessions judges when they hear criminal cases.
The subordinate courts that decide civil cases are the senior and junior (munsif) divisions. They are under the direct administrative control of the jurisidictional district court. The civil court procedures of each court are governed by the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
The subordinate courts that try criminal cases are the courts of the chief judicial magistrate, first class judicial magistrate and second class judicial magistrate. The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 governs the process of criminal trials. The jurisdiction of each court depends upon the severity of the crime and the appropriate punishment imposed by the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Outside this three-tier court system, there are several institutions which are established by legislations for resolving disputes. Such bodies, generally termed tribunals, provide a dispute resolution forum other than courts for handling disputes concerning the area specified by the statutes under which they are established.