Judicial Reforms of Lord William Bentinck


William Bentinck came in India as Governor-General of Bengal in July, 1828 and continued upto March, 1835. He introduced radical changes in the sphere of finance, justice and education. He fully re-organised the entire judicial system. Bentinck adopted the policy of Indianisation of the judiciary. Although he initiated many new policies in the civil and criminal judicature but from the point of view of legal history, he figures second only to that of Lord Cornwallis. Lord William Bentinck re-organised the entire judicial administration by introducing the following changes in the criminal as well as civil judicature –

Reforms in Criminal Judicature

Bentinck realised that the judicial scheme introduced by Cornwallis in 1793, did not produce desired results for two obvious reasons. Firstly, it failed to provide cheap justice to the people and secondly, there was inordinate delay in the disposal of cases due to arrears of work in law-Courts. The whole system was defective mainly because the English judges did not have adequate knowledge about the Indians, their habits, manners, customs and usages, and therefore, they were not able to do justice to them. To remedy these defects Bentinck re-organised Criminal Courts as under –

1. Abolition of Circuit Courts and Establishment of Commissioners Court– The first step taken by Lord Bentinck was abolition of the Provincial Courts of Appeal and Circuit in 1829 as they failed to render the trials cheap and speedy. The reason for this was that the Judges of these Courts were entrusted with multifarious functions of supervising the executive and revenue officers, performing magisterial functions as also the duties of police. This resulted into heavy accumulation of arrears of work in these Courts thereby causing delay in gaol deliveries. For the same reason the Judges of the Circuit could hardly find time to acquaint themselves with the local languages and customs.

In order to improve this situation, Bentinck divided the entire territory of Bengal into twenty divisions each having a Commissioner of Revenue and Circuit. These Commissioners were to conduct sessions of gaol delivery in their division atleast twice a year. They were also to exercise supervisory powers over the Collector of revenue and supervise the functions of the police in their division. These Commissioners were under the control of Sadar Nizamat Adalat for their judicial functions and under the Sadar Board of Revenue for their revenue duties. Their orders were final and conclusive not being subject to revision by the Sadar Nizamat Adalat. The most significant aspect of this new arrangement was that the Commissioners of Circuit were empowered to seek assistance of local respectable natives by utilizing their services either in the form of Panchayats or as assessors.

2. Appointment of District and Sessions Judges — In 1831, a District and Sessions Court was established in each district which was empowered to hear and decide civil and criminal cases, Regulation VII of 1831 authorised the Governor General in Council to empower the judges of the District Diwani Adalat not being magistrate, to hold criminal sessions whenever the pressure of work on the Commissioner was too heavy. The judges so authorised were to try all cases committed before them by the magistrates in their respective jurisdictions and to hold gaol deliveries at least once a month. In course of time, a District and Sessions Court was set up in each district to relieve the Commissioners of their heavy work load. This Court was to decide both, civil and criminal cases. The system continues even to this day.

3. Establishment of Second Sadar Nizamat Adalat at Allahabad – In 1831, a Sadar Nizamat Adalat was established at Allahabad to supervise the administration of justice in North-West Provinces. It had the same powers as that of the Sadar Nizamat Adalat of Calcutta.

4. To Enlarge Representation on Bentinck favoured the inclusion of native Indians to judicial posts. In 1832, the Sadar Ameens, who were Indian law officers, could award punishment of imprisonment with hard labour and corporal punishments upon the persons accused of theft. The Commissioners of Circuits could, take assistance from the native law officers by employing them as jurors or assessors. One important change introduced by Lord Bentinck was that non-Muslims could seek exemption from being tried in accordance with the Mohammedan law of crimes. In such cases Fatwa was dispensed with. The Sadar Nizamat Adalat was not bound to ask for a Fatwa from the Muftis. Thus, it would be seen that the Muslim law of crime ceased to be applicable to all the natives alike.

5. Abolition of Corporal Punishment – Bentinck abolished the corporal punishment in 1834 and introduced the Jury system in 1832.

Reform in Civil Justice

Although right from the time of Cornwallis to Lord Amherest constant efforts were made by the British administrators to widen the scope of natives involvement in the judicial administration but it was Lord Bentinck who initiated some concrete steps in this direction through the scheme of 1831 as under –

1. Appointment of Native Munsifs and the Enlargement of their Jurisdiction – The Munsifs could now decide all suits up to the value of Rs. 300/- the natives were eligible for appointment as Munsif without any restriction of caste, creed or religion. They were to be the regular salaried officers of the Government.

2. Appointment of Native Sadar Ameens and the Enlargement of their Jurisdiction – The office of Sadar Ameen was also thrown open to natives. Suits not exceeding the value of Rs. 1,000/- could be referred to a Sadar Ameen by the Zilla or City Judge. One more higher cadre of Ameens, called the Principal Sadar Ameen was created. They were also salaried officers of the Government. The Zilla or City Diwani Judge could refer to a Principal Sadar Ameen, any case not exceeding Rs. 5000/- in value. However, the pecuniary restriction on the jurisdiction of the Principal Sadar Ameen was subsequently withdrawn in 1837 and he could now determine any suit which was referred to him by the Zilla or City Adalat irrespective of its pecuniary value.

3. Abolition of Provincial Court of Appeal – The Provincial Courts of Appeal were abolished in 1833. As regards the appeals, the decision of the Zila or City Diwani Adalat was final in suits which came in appeal from the Court of Munsif or Sadar Ameen. In all cases which were originally determined by the Principal Sadar Ameen, an appeal could be taken to the Sadar Diwani Adalat at Calcutta. It must be noted that all British subjects, European and American foreigners were excluded from the jurisdiction of native judges of all categories.

4. Abolition of Court of Registrar-The Registrar’s Courts were abolished consequently, the earlier procedure of referring civil suits to the Registrar of the Zilla or City Diwani Adalat was abolished and such cases were now to be sent to Sadar Ameens or the Principal Sadar Ameen for reference according to the pecuniary value of the suit.

5. Commencement of Jury System – Regulation V of 1832 provided that the English officials of the civil courts could seek assistance of respectable native gentleman in deciding civil cases either by referring the suit to a ‘Panchayat to find the facts and report to the court or deputing two or more of such natives as ‘Assessors’ or by employing them as ‘Jury’ to attend the Court during trial and give their verdict. Thus, this marks the beginning of Jury system in India. However, the final decision was always vested with the Judge of the court in all cases.

6. Establishment of Second Sadar Diwani Adalat – A Sadar Diwani Adalat was also established at Allahabad from January 1, 1832, for the North-West Provinces with the same powers as that of the Sadar Diwani Adalat of Calcutta. The Sadar Diwani Adalat of Allahabad had jurisdiction over the Province of Banaras including the districts of Meerut, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar and Bulandsahar.

7. Reforms in Revenue Administration – The combining of judicial and revenue functions in a single authority by the Judicial Reforms of 1829 adversely affected the efficiency of the judicial administration and revenue earnings of the Company. Consequently, the system was discarded through Regulation VII of 1831. The power of the Judges of the Mofussil Diwani Adalats to decide summary suits of rent was withdrawn and transferred to Collectors. Thus, the Collectors were not empowered to exercise jurisdiction to decide suits relating to rent summarily. The decision of the Collector in rent-suit cases was to be final subject to the revision by the Mofussil Diwani Adalat on regular suits presented before them.

Contribution of Bentinck

Undoubtedly Bentinck made a very important contribution towards the administration of justice. It can be said with certainty that the main outlines of the present judicial system were settled during his life time. In the words of Dr. M. P. Jain, “The key note of Bentinck’s judicial reforms was Indianisation, decentralisation and economy.

Decentralization was achieved through the use of Munsifs interspersed throughout the district, Indianisation and decentralisation reduced pressure on highly paid English Judges and this led to economy as it lessened the necessity to increase the number of senior judges on his big salaries.”



Summarize the provisions of the scheme of Lord William Bentinck for the administration of Law and Justice in Bengal.


Discuss the Judicial measures of Lord William Bentinck.


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