Federal Court: Its Constitution and Jurisdiction

Why was the Federal Court established in India

Government of India Act, 1935 established federal form of Government of India. Therefore it necessitated the establishment of a Federal Court. Federal Court is regarded as an essential element in federal constitution because it is regarded as the interpreter and guardian of the Constitution as well a court for the determination of disputes arising among  constituent units and the federation. On 1st October, 1937 the Federal Court was formally inaugurated at New Delhi. Thus, Government of India Act, 1935 provided for the establishment of a Federal Court for India at Delhi. The Court was to act as the interpreter and guardian of the Constitution and as a tribunal for the determination of disputes between the Constituent units of the Federation. Thus, it was to act as an umpire in the constitutional disputes arising between the Federal Government and its component units regarding their spheres of jurisdiction.

Constitution of the Federal Court of India

The Federal Court consisted of a Chief Justice and not more than six puisne judges. All the judges were to be appointed by His Majesty and to remain in office till they attained the age of 65. A judge of the Federal Court could be removed from office even earlier on the ground of misbehaviour or infirmity of mind if the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, on a reference made to them by His Majesty, reported his removal to ensure the judicial independence of the Federal Court, the salaries and allowances of the judges were made non-votable by the Legislature and were to be fixed by His Majesty in Council. The emoluments and the conditions of service of the judges could not be varied to their disadvantage during their term of office.

Qualifications for the Judges of the Federal Court

No person should be appointed as a Judge of the Federal Court unless he passed the following qualifications –

(a) He had served as a Judge of High Court in British India or a Federated State for at least five years; or

(b) He was a Barrister of England or Northern Ireland or a Member of the Faculty of Advocates of Scotland, of at least ten-year’s
standing; or

(c) He had been a Pleader of a High Court in British India or a federated State or of two or more such Courts in succession for at least ten years.

For appointment as a Chief Justice of Federal Court, it was necessary that he should be a Barrister or Pleader of at least fifteen year’s standing. It must be noted that the qualifications for Judgeship of the Federal Court were deliberately so kept in order to exclude members of Indian Civil Service from this august office.

Jurisdiction of the Federal Court

The Federal Court of India had three types jurisdiction, namely –

1. Original Jurisdiction – The original jurisdiction of the Federal Court extended to all the disputes arising between the Federation and any of its units or between two or more component units of the Federation, if it involved any question of law or fact on which the existence of a legal right depended. If, however, any federated State was a party to a dispute, then the original jurisdiction of the Federal Court did not extend to it, unless –

(i) The dispute related to the interpretation of the Act or order in Council or it related to the legislative or executive authority vested in the Federation by virtue of the Instrument of Accession, or

(ii) It related to administration of a federal law in the State; or

(iii) It related to an arrangement made after the establishment of the Federation with the approval of His Majesty’s representative for the exercise of the functions of the Crown in its relations with Indian States; being an agreement which expressly provided that the jurisdiction of the Federal Court would extend to such a dispute.

2. Appellate Jurisdiction – The appellate jurisdiction of the Federal Court extended to appeals from any judgment or decree or final order of the High Court in British India, if the Court certified that the case involved a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Government of India Act, 1935 or any order in Council made thereunder. In such cases, no appeal lay directly to the Privy Council with or without special leave. The appellate jurisdiction of the Federal Court also extended to some civil cases where the claim or subject matter in dispute was not less than Rs. 50,000 or such other sum not less than Rs. 15,000.

Finally, an appeal on any other case could also be brought to the Federal Court by special leave.

These provisions for appeal to the Federal Court in civil cases were inapplicable to the Federal States. The Federal Court had no appellate jurisdiction over criminal cases. .

3. Advisory Jurisdiction – The Advisory jurisdiction of the Federal Court extended to such questions as were referred to it by the Governor-General acting in his discretion for its opinion. The questions for opinion invariably involved interpretation of the Constitution. The Governor-General was, however, not bound by the advice tendered to him by the Federal Court. The Federal Court possessed extensive powers for to exercise of its judicial functions. The court could summon and examine witnesses and order production of any document. It could punish for its own contempt and could make rules for regulating its own procedure and legal practice at Bar.

Appeals to the Privy Council

The establishment of Federal Court in India did not affect the final appellate jurisdiction of the Privy Council. In constitutional cases coming under the original jurisdiction of the Federal Court, an appeal still lay to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as a matter of right and without the leave of the Federal Court. In other cases; however, an appeal lay to the Privy Council by special leave.

Importance of Federal Court

The importance of Federal Court in the Constitutional History of India lies in the fact that it was the first Federal institution established under the Govt. of India Act, 1935. As a matter of fact it was a first constitutional court in the sense that its primary function was to interpret the Constitutional provisions. This court inspired a high degree of confidence in the minds of public. So long as India maintained ties with the Privy Council, the Federal Court was regarded by many as intermediate appellate Court and, therefore, was denied the position of prominence it merited. Nonetheless the Federal Court contributed significantly to India’s Constitutional development and when it yielded to the Supreme Court of India on 26th Jan, 1950, it passed to its successor a tradition of the highest standard of independence, integrity and impartiality.


From all that what is said above it can rightly be concluded that although the Federal Court’s period of life, of only twelve years, was very short yet it did some useful work as regards the evolution of federal constitutional jurisprudence in the country. Some of the principles of constitutional interpretation which this Court laid down in relation to the Government of India Act, 1935, were later adopted by the Supreme Court in relation to the interpretation of the present Constitution. But, above all, the Federal Court occupies a significant place in the Legal History of India’ as the predecessor of the present day Supreme Court of India. In fact, on January 26, 1950, the Federal Court itself was converted into the Supreme Court and all the Federal Court Judges on that day became the Judges of the Supreme Court. There is thus a historic continuity between the Federal Court and the Supreme Court of India.



Why was the Federal Court established in India ? Explain its Constitution, Jurisdiction and significance in the Indian Legal History.


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