Criminal Courts in India: Types & Hierarchy

JUSTICE Criminal Court Hierarchy Law Insider

By: Arryan Mohanty

Published on: April 1, 2022 at 10:00 IST


One of the most crucial cornerstones of Democracy is the Judiciary.

The Supreme Court, High Courts, District Courts or Subordinate Courts, and Constitutional Courts make up India’s Judicial system.

In India, the constitution is the supreme source of law, and these laws are implemented by the Judicial system, or Courts, which are regarded as the Indian Constitution’s watchdogs.

The Court has the power to make judgements that are binding on both citizens and the government.

The law of the land is determined by the decisions of the Courts.

Our Constitution establishes an independent judicial system, which implies that the legislative and executive departments have no direct authority over the Court.

The term ‘Independent Judiciary’ refers to judges and the judiciary system as being free of external and internal influences.

The judiciary’s independence is required to maintain a system of checks and balances among the various institutions of government.

People should have faith in their Country’s justice delivery system, and this faith can be reassured by developing a strong and independent judicial system.

The Indian judicial system is organised into a hierarchy, with each level having its own set of authorities and competences, as outlined by the Constitution.

For Civil and Criminal matters, this hierarchy may differ.

India’s legal system is one of the most efficient in the world, and it has been designed to meet the needs of every individual in the Country.

The Indian Judicial System is well-established, with a lengthy and complex Court Structure.

The legal system is organised in the shape of a pyramid, with the Supreme Court of India at the top.

The Courts have been designed in such a way that even someone living in a remote area can use them to resolve their problems.

Hierarchy of Criminal Courts

In India, the criminal justice system is organised as follows:

Supreme Court: The Supreme Court of India was established under Article 124 of Part V and Chapter IV of the Indian Constitution as the country’s highest court.

High Courts: The second level of the hierarchy is the high courts. They are governed by Article 141 of the Indian Constitution and are bound by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Subordinate Courts/Lower Courts

The following is a list of India’s Lower Courts:

Metropolitan Courts

  1. Sessions Court
  2. Chief Metropolitan Magistrate
  3. First Class Metropolitan Magistrate

District Courts

  1. Sessions Court
  2. First Class Judicial Magistrate
  3. Second Class Judicial Magistrate
  4. Executive Magistrate

Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court of India is the Country’s Highest Court. Part V, Chapter IV of the Constitution establishes it.

The Supreme Court of India’s composition and jurisdiction are outlined in Articles 124 to 147 of the Indian Constitution.

The President of India appoints the Chief Justice and 30 other judges to the Supreme Court of India. Judges on the Supreme Court retire when they reach the age of 65.

To be appointed as a Supreme Court Judge, a person must be an Indian citizen and have served as a Judge of a High Court or two or more such Courts in succession for at least five years, or as an Advocate of a High Court or two or more such Courts in succession for at least ten years, or be a distinguished jurist in the opinion of the President.

There are provisions in place for a High Court Judge to be appointed as an Ad-hoc Judge of the Supreme Court, as well as for retired Supreme Court or High Court Judges to sit and act as Judges of that Court.

Original, Appellate, and Advisory jurisdiction are all exercised by the Supreme Court.

Also read: Appellate Jurisdiction of Supreme Court in Criminal matters

Its exclusive original jurisdiction extends to any dispute between the Government of India and one or more States, or between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more States on the other, or between two or more States, if and to the extent that the dispute involves any question (whether of law or fact) that affects the existence or scope of a legal right.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court has considerable original jurisdiction over the enforcement of Fundamental Rights under Article 32 of the Constitution.

It has the authority to issue directives, orders, or writs to enforce them, including writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo-warranto, and certiorari.

The Supreme Court has the authority to order that any civil or criminal case be transferred from one State High Court to another State High Court or from one Court subordinate to another State High Court.

If the Supreme Court determines that cases involving the same or substantially the same legal questions are pending before it and one or more High Courts, or two or more High Courts, and that such questions are substantial questions of general importance, the Supreme Court may withdraw a case or cases pending before the High Court or High Courts and dispose of all such cases itself.

International Commercial Arbitration can also be initiated before the Supreme Court under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996.

A certificate granted by the High Court concerned under Article 132(1), 133(1), or 134 of the Constitution in respect of any judgement, decree, or final order of a High Court in both civil and criminal cases involving substantial questions of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution can be used to invoke the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.

In criminal cases, an appeal to the Supreme Court is available if the High Court:

  • has reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to death or life imprisonment or for a period of not less than 10 years, or
  • has withdrawn for trial before itself any case from any Court subordinate to its authority and has convicted the accused and sentenced him to death or
  • life imprisonment or for a period of not less than 10 years, or has withdrawn for trial before itself any case from any Court subordinate to its authority.

Parliament has the authority to provide the Supreme Court further powers to entertain and hear appeals against any judgement, final order, or sentence issued by a High Court in a criminal matter.

Also read: Review Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India

High Courts

The High Court is the highest court in a state’s judicial system. A Chief Justice and as many other Judges as the President may appoint from time to time make up each High Court.

The President, in conjunction with the Chief Justice of India and the Governor of the State, appoints the Chief Justice of a High Court.

The procedure for appointing judges is the same as before, with the exception that the Chief Justice of the High Court in question is also consulted.

Also read: Grounds for Appeal in High Court

They serve until they reach the age of 62 and are removed in the same way as Supreme Court judges are.

To be considered for a position as a judge, one must be an Indian citizen and have served in a judicial capacity in India for 10 years, or have practiced as an advocate in a High Court or two or more such Courts in succession for a similar duration.

Each High Court has the authority to issue directives, orders, or writs to anybody within its jurisdiction, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto, and certiorari for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights and for any other reason.

This power may also be exercised by any High Court with jurisdiction over territories where the cause of action for the exercise of such power arises, in whole or in part, despite the fact that the seat of such Government or authority, or the residence of such person, is not within those territories.

All Courts within a High Court’s jurisdiction are subject to its supervision.

It has the authority to demand returns from such Courts, to enact general rules and prescribe procedures to govern their practice and proceedings, and to specify the method and format in which book entries and accounts must be kept.

Also read: Power of High Courts to Make Rules & Supreme Court of India and High courts

Subordinate Criminal Courts

Apart from the Supreme Court, High Court, and courts created under any statute, the following courts must be present in every state, according to section 6 of the Criminal Procedure Code:

  • Sessions Court
  • Judicial Magistrates of the First Class (Metropolitan Magistrates in the metropolitan area)
  • Judicial Magistrates of Second Class
  • Executive Magistrates

Session Court

The Sessions Court is established according to Section 9 of the CrPC.

The Sessions Court is established by the State Government and must be presided over by a judge selected by the High Court. Additional and Assistant Sessions Judges are appointed by the High Court.

The Court of Sessions is normally held at the location or locations specified by the High Court.

However, if the Court of Session believes that it will have to accommodate the convenience of the parties and witnesses in a specific case, it may hold its sittings at any other location with the approval of the prosecution and the accused.

The assistant sessions judges are accountable to the sessions judge under section 10 of the CrPC.

A Session Court can impose a punishment under Section 29(1) of the CrPC. As a result, the Sessions Judge has the authority to impose any legal punishment.

It cannot, however, impose a death sentence, life imprisonment, or a sentence of more than seven years in jail.

Courts of Judicial Magistrates of First and Second Class

Sections 11 and 12 of the Criminal Procedure Code define the provisions governing the Courts of Judicial Magistrates.

According to Section 11(1) of the CrPC, the Courts of Judicial Magistrates of the First and Second Classes must be formed in such numbers and locations as the High Court may specify by notification.

The state government must seek advice from the Supreme Court. These courts, however, will not be formed in a metropolitan region.

After consultation with the High Court, the state government can also establish special courts of Judicial Magistrate of the First or Second Set to try any particular case or class of cases.

The High Court appoints the presiding officers of these courts, as stated in section 11(2) of the CrPC.

The High Court also has the ability to direct the powers of a Judicial Magistrate of the First Class or Second Class on any member of the state’s Judicial Service who is serving as a judge in a Civil Court under Section 11(3) of the CrPC. Only when it is absolutely required can powers be granted.

The High Court must also appoint the Judicial Magistrate of the First Class as a Chief Judicial Magistrate in each district, according to section 12(1) of the CrPC.

A Judicial Magistrate of the First Class can sentence an offender to up to three years in prison or a fine of up to Rs 5000 under section 29(2) of the CrPC.

According to section 29(3) of the CrPC, the Judicial Magistrate of the Second Class can impose a term of up to one year in prison or a fine of up to Rs 1000.

Court of Metropolitan Magistrates

They have a presence in every major city. The High Court is responsible for appointing the presiding officers. The Metropolitan Magistrates’ jurisdiction and authority shall extend throughout the metropolitan region.

As Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, the High Court will select a Metropolitan Magistrate. Section 16 of the Criminal Procedure Code describes the provisions pertaining to the Court of the Metropolitan Magistrates.

The state government has the authority under section 16(1) to create Courts of Metropolitan Magistrates in each metropolitan area. The state government establishes such courts in the number and locations specified by the High Court.

The High Court appoints the officers who preside over the Courts of Metropolitan Magistrates (section 16(2), CrPC).

Section 16(3) of the CrPC establishes the jurisdiction and competence of these courts. As a result, these Courts have authority and jurisdiction over the entire metropolitan area.

The Metropolitan Magistrates can pass sentences in the same way that the Judicial Magistrate of the First Class can, according to section 29(4) of the CrPC.

The High Court has the authority to grant Special Metropolitan Magistrates the same powers as a Metropolitan Magistrate in specific circumstances or classes of cases.

Special Metropolitan Magistrates shall be appointed for a period of not more than one year.

The High Court or the State Government may grant the Special Metropolitan Magistrate the authority to execute the functions of a Judicial Magistrate of the First Class in any region outside of the metropolitan area.

The Sessions Judge is superior to the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, while the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate and all Metropolitan Magistrates are subject to the CMM, according to Section 19 of the Code.

The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate has the authority to issue special orders or rules concerning the distribution of business among Metropolitan Magistrates and the assignment of business to an Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate.

Executive Magistrate

According to Section 20, the State Government must select Executive Magistrates in each district and metropolitan region, with one of them serving as the District Magistrate.

An Executive Magistrate shall be appointed as an Additional District Magistrate, with all of the functions of a District Magistrate as defined by the Code.

Executive magistrates were not given the authority to try defendants or render verdicts because their job is to carry out administrative responsibilities.

They are mostly responsible for administrative tasks.

The executive magistrates have the authority to determine the amount of bail based on the provisions of the warrant issued against the accused, to issue orders prohibiting people from committing a specific act or from entering a specific area (Section 144 Cr.P.C), to be the authority to whom people are taken when they are arrested outside the local jurisdiction, and to disperse a crowd or an unlawful assembly (Section 144 Cr.P.C).

The police help Executive Magistrates in carrying out their duties.

According to Section 21, the State Government may appoint Special Executive Magistrates to oversee certain areas or execute specific functions.

Section 22 of the CrPC permits the District Court to specify the regions in which Executive Magistrates may exercise all or any of the functions conferred on them by this code, but with limited exceptions, such Magistrate’s authority and jurisdiction shall extend across the district.

Executive Magistrates will report to the District Magistrate under Section 23, while the Additional District Magistrate will not report to the District Magistrate.

Except for the Sub-divisional Magistrate, every Executive Magistrate is subordinate to the Sub-divisional Magistrate.

The executive magistrates must follow the district magistrate’s guidelines or special directives regulating the division of business among them.

The district magistrate can also issue regulations or special instructions about how business is assigned to an Additional District Magistrate.

Sentences which can be passed by the various courts

Sentences passed by the High Courts and Sessions Judges

The High Court has the authority to impose any penalty that is lawful.

Any sentence authorized by law can be imposed by a sessions or additional sessions Judge. However, before imposing a death sentence, the High Court must first grant permission.

Any punishment that has been authorized by law can be passed by an Assistant Sessions Judge. A death sentence, life imprisonment, or a sentence of more than ten years cannot be imposed by such a court.

Sentences passed by the Magistrates

Except for death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for more than seven years, the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate has the authority to impose any sentence authorized by law.

A first-class Magistrate can impose a sentence of not more than three years in prison or a fine of not more than ten thousand rupees, or both.

The Second-Class Magistrate has the power to impose a sentence of up to one year in prison, a fine, or both. The penalties levied cannot be more than 5,000 rupees.

In addition to the powers of the First-Class Magistrate, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate has the powers of a Chief Judicial Magistrate and a Metropolitan Magistrate.

The sentence for default of fine

As per Section 30, the Magistrate has the authority to impose jail for failure to pay a fine as required by law. However, the following requirements must be met:

  • The term should not be used in a way that goes beyond the Magistrate’s powers under Section 29.
  • Only if imprisonment is a part of the substantive sentence as punishment for the offence, the term should not exceed one-fourth of the length of imprisonment that the Magistrate is authorized to give.
  • This clause may be used in conjunction with a substantive sentence of imprisonment for the maximum term allowed by the Magistrate under section 29.

The sentence in cases of conviction of several offences at one trial

Section 31 states that when a person is guilty of two or more offences in a single trial, the Court may punish him for all of them in the same trial, subject to section 71.

The court also has the authority to impose a variety of penalties. Such prison sentences may begin after the completion of previous punishments.

Unless the courts order otherwise, such punishments will run concurrently. It is not essential for the Court to send the defendant to the High Court if the sentence is repeated.

If the total punishment for many offences surpasses the court’s ability to impose punishment for a single offence. Assuming that:

  • The sentence should not be more than fourteen years.
  • The total punishment cannot be more than twice the maximum penalty that the Court has the authority to impose for a single offence.

The total punishment imposed against him under this clause is usually deemed to be a single sentence for purposes of appeal.


There are currently no defined criteria in India for the issuing of death sentences in criminal cases.

Furthermore, in the majority of the offences, just the maximum or minimum sentence has been mentioned.

It is up to the court to determine what the exact period of punishment should be in every given situation.

There is no standard protocol or performa for judges to follow when deciding on a punishment in similar cases.

Even in cases with similar facts, the severity of the sentence differs.

As a result, the Judges should be given an organised layout outlining the criteria on which they should base their decisions.

The proper administration of justice must be in accordance with societal expectations, which is one of the key constitutional aims.

The goal can be attained if residents in our country can quickly access the courts whenever they have a disagreement.

The criminal courts are set up in such a way that any person can seek justice from them. Citizens can also appeal to higher authorities if they believe lower Courts have failed to provide them with justice.

As a result, citizens can now easily approach the judiciary thanks to this method.

Also read: Indian Judicial system and Hierarchy of Courts in India & Reforms in the Indian Judicial System & Whether Indian Judiciary is more powerful than the Judiciary in the U.S.A.?


Edited By: Advocate Komal Sharma, Publishing Editor at Law Insider


RV Kelkar’s Criminal Procedure, KN Chandrasekharan Pillai, 7th Edition, Eastern Book Company

The Code of Criminal Procedure, SN Mishra, 22nd Edition, Central Law Publications

Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Code of Criminal Procedure, Justice(retd.) CK Prasad & Namit Saxena, 22nd Edition, Lexis Nexis

Hierarchy, Functions, & Powers of Courts in India, LAWNN.COM


Hierarchy of Criminal Courts and their Jurisdiction, Legal Service India

Hierarchy of Courts and Justice System in India, iPleaders

Scope Of Article 226 Of the Constitution of India: Important Judgments,

Hierarchy of Criminal Courts in India – Judicial Perspective


Related Post