The extent of powers of the Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court of India came into existence on 28th January, 1950. It was established as a replacement of both, the Federal Court of India and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which were the highest courts of judicature under colonial British rule. The Constitution of India which was enforced in the year 1950 established the Supreme Court of India initially consisting of a chief justice and 7 other judges. At present, it comprises one chief justice and 33 other judges. The hierarchy of courts of India can be established as – Supreme Court, High Courts, Subordinate Courts. The Indian Constitution specifically defines each of these courts’ functions, procedures, composition, and powers.  

Articles 124, 127, and 128 empower the parliament to make laws for the regulation of organization, jurisdiction, and other powers of the Supreme Court. Further, they state that the Chief Justice of India with the prior consent of the president of India can appoint a retired Supreme Court judge as a judge again for a temporary period. Similar provisions for high court judges have also been provided.  


The Supreme Court of India enjoys a wide extent of powers ranging from functioning as the federal court to the original jurisdiction to the final court of appeal in the country. It enjoys absolute powers as compared to other courts in the hierarchy.

Original jurisdiction and its federal nature: 

 The federal nature of the Constitution defines the distribution and separation of powers between the union and the state. They drive their authority and limits to their powers from the Constitution itself.

As the powers are divided there must exist some authority to determine disputes arising between the union and the state.

Article 131 of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court original and exclusive jurisdiction to solve and determine disputes arising between union and state and even states inter se.  It has the power to determine disputes between the government of India and any of the state, government of India, and any state or states on one side and any other state or states on the other side, or between two or more states. [1]

This jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is exclusive in the sense that it is only available to the Supreme Court and no other court in the country has the power to exercise this power and entertain any such suit. However, this power will not extend until and unless both the parties are not the units of the federation. In case of suits brought by a private party or an individual against the state or the government it will not lie within this jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and can also be taken up by any other ordinary court of the country. As provided under the proviso of Article 131 which was inserted through the 7th amendment of the Constitution that disputes of the following nature are excluded from the ambit of jurisdiction under this Article. These excluded disputes include any dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement; any instrument contained to operate in the country but has been entered before the commencement of the Constitution. Furthermore, these disputes can be referred by the President of the country to the Supreme Court for consideration under his advisory jurisdiction. For about 12 years that is until 1962, no suit under such jurisdiction has been decided by the Supreme Court. The first suit under such jurisdiction was brought in the year 1961  by the State of West Bengal against the Union of India for dispute regarding the constitutionality of the Coal Bearing Areas Act, 1957.[2]

Moreover, the Supreme Court has extended original jurisdiction for transferring certain cases as provided under the constitution:-

  • In case of disputes involving substantially the same question of law as pending before the Supreme Court and one or more high courts. On its motion or at the request of the Attorney-General of India or a party to any such case if the Supreme Court is satisfied that such questions constitute significant questions of general importance it may remove the case or cases pending before the High Court or the High Courts and rule on all the cases itself:

Given that the Supreme Court may after having decided the aforementioned questions of law, return to the High Court any case so withdrawn, together with a copy of its judgment on those questions from which the case was withdrawn, and that the High Court, upon receipt thereof, may decide, in accordance with that judgment, to rule on the case.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court may move any case, appeal or other proceedings pending before any High Court to any other High Court if it considers it necessary to do so for justice. [3]

  • The Supreme Court also has the power to transfer any suit, proceedings, or any appeal pending before a high court to any other high court in any of the states of the union.[4] 
  • The Supreme Court has the power to transfer any case or appeal from a high court to any other high court or from any subordinate criminal court to another high court or any other criminal subordinate court of similar or superior jurisdiction. 

However, it must be noted that there are certain disputes under which original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is not applied and their determination is vested in other tribunals:- 

  • Disputes specifically defined under proviso of Articles 131 and 363(1). 
  • In the case of water disputes, Article 262 provides: Parliament may by statute, provide for any dispute or complaint relating to the use, distribution, or regulation of the waters of, or in any inter-State river or river valley to be adjudicated.
  • Subjects and matters specifically referred to the finance committee. 
  • Adjustment of some expenditures between the union and the states.

Appellate jurisdiction

The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal of all the courts lying in the national territory of the Union of India. Unlike earlier during the British colonial rule when the highest court of appeal was the Privy Council of England, the power now solely rests with the Supreme Court. Appellate jurisdiction can be further divided into the following 3 heads:-

  • Cases that involve any substantial interpretation of the Constitution be it criminal, civil, or even otherwise. 
  • Any civil case does not explicitly involve any question of the Constitution. 
  • Any criminal case does not explicitly involve any question of the Constitution. 

Furthermore, an appeal to the Supreme Court can be made for any order, judgment, decree in civil proceedings given by any of the court or tribunal lying in the territory of India under two classes of cases:-

  • If the case involves any substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution, an appeal must be made to the Supreme Court only on a certificate given by a high court or when the high court did not give the certificate but the Supreme Court is satisfied that some question of interpretation of the Constitution is involved and an appeal can be made.[5] 
  • Where there is no question of interpretation involved but high court gives the certificate on fulfilling the following conditions:- 
  1.  If the given case involves any substantial question of some general importance.
  2. If in the opinion of the high court the question in the case so involved must be decided by the Supreme Court. 

As before the enactment of the Constitution, there was no court of appeal for criminal cases. The Privy Council of England entertained appeals of criminal matters only on special leave and it was not available to citizens as a right. But after the establishment of the Constitution in 1950, an appeal from the high court for any order, judgment, decree, or sentence made in criminal proceedings shall lie to the Supreme Court under 2 specified classes of cases:- 

  • If the High Court has overturned an order of acquittal of the accused person on appeal and sentenced him to death
  • If it has removed any case from any court subordinate to its jurisdiction for trial before itself and has convicted the accused person in such trial and sentenced him to death.

Apart from these two cases an appeal may lie from the high court to the Supreme Court in any criminal case, if the High Court certifies it as to be fit for appeal in the Supreme Court and if it thinks that the question involves some specific interpretation of the provisions of the constitution. 

Except for the above-listed cases, no appeal can lie  to the Supreme Court however, the Parliament has been empowered to make laws conferring powers to the Supreme Court to hear appeals from any other issues, even evolving criminal proceedings . 

Writ jurisdiction

It is defined under Article 32 of the Constitution as is given as a constitutional right to the citizens for enforcement of fundamental rights in case of their infringement. This is sometimes taken under the ambit of original jurisdiction of the court and an explanation for this can be the aggrieved party can directly approach the court without any concept of appeal from a high court. However, it is still treated as a separate jurisdiction because of the parties involved in the disputes which can be between anyone be it even between 2 individuals which is not the case under original jurisdiction.  

Advisory jurisdiction 

This jurisdiction is exercised by the Supreme Court when it gives an opinion on any question of law or any matter of public importance as has been referred to it by the president for consideration. 

Two classes of matter where the courts may be required to express their opinion are discussed below:-

  • May be referred to the Supreme Court for consideration if in the opinion of the president the question is a question of public importance and the Supreme Court’s opinion on the matter so involved is required. However, this is in no sense proper litigation between them. Furthermore, the opinion and advice given by the court are not binding on the president and it cannot be executed as a separate judgment held by the court. 

The main importance of such an opinion is that it enables the government to secure legislative authority to check its validity before its enactment and also some matters which would not go to the court ordinarily but the government is anxious to have a legal opinion before taking up any further action into the matter. Apart from giving its opinion, the court is also empowered to decline to give any advice concerning any matter taken up to it for consideration. The court declined its opinion for the first time in the year 1993 under Special Reference No. 1 until the year 2013 there have been 13 cases of reference made to the Supreme Court by the president under this case.[6]

  • In matters of dispute arising out of treaties and agreements executed before the enactment of the Constitution which has been excluded under the proviso of Article 131. The subject matter of such disputes can be referred by the president to the court for its opinion. 

In the Kerala Education Bill 1951, the Supreme Court took the firm view that the advisory jurisdiction under Articles 143(1) and 143(2) is not similar in the sense that under the latter the court is obliged to give its opinion which is not the case under the first one. In addition to this, the Supreme Court under Special Reference No. 1 of 1964 took the view that it is no way an obligation upon the court to answer the questions under article 143(1) and further, the use of the word ‘may’ therein is in contradiction to the use of the word ‘shall’ under the latter one.[7]

Besides Article 143, advisory jurisdiction for the court has been conferred to it under section 53k of the Competition Commission Act, 2002. 

 Other jurisdiction 

Provision of reference under certain Articles and sections except for the above-listed one also gives an extended power of jurisdiction to the court. In case of reference, these may include:-

  • Article 317(1) of the Constitution of India, 1950.
  • Section 130A of the Consumers Act, 1962. 

An appeal may lie to the Supreme Court under certain Articles and sections some of which are listed below:-

  • Section 116A of the Representatives of Peoples Act, 1951.
  • Section 379 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
  • Section 261 of the Income Tax Act, 1961.

Furthermore, the court is also empowered with a special power to review its judgment or order.[8]


The Supreme Court is the apex court of the country vested with absolute powers to exercise its control in the country. However, some of its powers are also vested with high courts in the country but there still lie some exceptional powers which can only be exercised by this highest court of the land. Thus, it can also be said that this court is the highest point of judicature of the union and it is subordinate to no authority in the country and is independent in its control of matters. 


[1]The Constitution of India, 1950, art.131.

[2]DR. Durga Das Basu, Introduction to the Constitution of India (LexisNexis, 21st edn., 2013).

[3]The Constitution of India,1950, art.139.

[4] The Code of Civil Procedure, 1973, s.25.

[5]The Constitution of India,1950, art.132.

[6] Supra note 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8]The Constitution of India,1950, art.137.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *