Madras High Court: Where justice began 125 years ago

Though it was formed in 1862, the Madras High Court was formally inaugurated in 1892. City Express traces the history of the court, through the eyes of lawyers and historians

Published: 18th July 2017 09:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th July 2017 09:18 AM   |  A+A-

(Above) Aerial view of the High Court; (below) archival photo of the road leading to the court; (inset) Muthuswamy Iyer

Express News Service

CHENNAI: If you take the NSC Bose Road, towards the Chennai Beach Railway Station, you cannot ignore the majestic building of justice — the Madras High Court that stands tall and jubilant, even amid traffic congestions and diversions. Built primarily in the exquisite Indo-Sarasenic style, with an amalgamation of several other inspirations that reflect in the stained glasses, painted ceilings and arches, the buildings, which recently celebrated 125 years, have a bigger story to tell.

The building complex’s boundaries are marked by two roads — Prakasam Road and Rajaji Road, where you can see men and women in black coats hurrying to the court. While some modern utility buildings have been installed inside the complex, the old structure has been maintained and in some parts, is being renovated. The Madras Bar Association (MBA), formed in 1865, recently celebrated 125 years (July 12, 1892) of the High Court. 

“Though the Madras High Court dates back to 155 years — to the time when it was formed in 1862, the inauguration of the high court buildings 125 years ago in its present location is historic,” shares S Muthiah, historian. The beginnings of the institution can be traced back to the 1640s, when the Choultry Courts were established. “This was long before legal practices began in the country,” he adds. 

The powers of the Governor, who was the Chief Justice of the Choultry Courts, were enhanced, permitting trial of all people, European or Indian. “In 1665, the court held its first trial by jury in India. A European woman, Ascenti Dawes, was in trial for allegedly killing her maid. Until then, cases of an Indian murdering another Indian were taken to trials…but this was new,” he explains. 

Thirty six people were summoned; of which a jury was to be selected. And Ascenti challenged three of them. “Out of the remaining 33, six English and six Portuguese were sworn in,” he shares. This was marked as the beginning of the justice system and also instilled hope in the ‘first city of Modern India’. “I wonder how many are aware about how everything started,” ponders Muthaiah.

The Choultry Courts were superseded by the Court of Judicature (1678), The Recorder’s Court (1796) and Supreme Court (1800). The High Court came in to place in 1862. “Almost 30 years later, Governor Lord Wenlock handed over the keys of this building to Chief Justice Arthur Collins,” he recalls.
The building has housed innumerous names including, Muthuswamy Iyer who became the first native Indian to be appointed as judge of the Madras High Court, S Subramanian Iyer and V Bhashyam Aiyengar. Talking about the statues of the court, especially that of Muthuswamy Iyer, which has become one of the many symbols of the High Court, NL Rajah, senior advocate and member of the Madras High Court Heritage Committee, says, “You can do a separate thesis on the motifs, symbols and the statues of the High Court.”

Rajah opined that the statues of Rajagopalachari in the North of the complex, the statue of Muthuswamy Iyer in the court complex and that of T Prakasam in the South, were akin to the famous ‘Oor Kaval Deivam’. Adhilakshmi Logamurthy, secretary, Women Lawyers Association, says she makes it a point to visit the statue of Muthuswamy Iyer every day. “As my father was a lawyer, I have been visiting the High Court since I was 3. The complex was filled with trees then…lawyers used to wear dhoti and turban along with a coat,” she recalls.

The regal quadrangle located inside the complex seems to be the favourite place for many barristers and Adhilakhsmi enthusiastically says, “How can it not be? Many advocates, and judges have discussed cases and information in that quadrangle and it reverberates all the knowledge and history. It’s like a portal to wisdom and most of us till today spend our time there. Its more than 100 years of knowledge congregated in one spot!” she smiles. 

Kumana Raja, secretary, Law Association, concurs, and adds, “Be it the statue of Muthuswamy Iyer or the motifs on the outer walls, the High Court complex is our home. The quadrangle is our unofficial library.”

During World War...
The building was damaged in the shelling of Madras by SMS Emden, in the beginning of the First World War in 1914.During World War II, the Madras High Court was shifted to a school in T Nagar.

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