Moving court: What Bombay High Court lawyers feel about shifting from the heritage building

Over 160 years after it was inaugurated, the Bombay High Court is on the verge of moving to a newer building.
Bombay High Court
Bombay High Court

The Maharashtra government told the Bombay High Court in March 2023 that it had allotted over 30 acres of land in Bandra East for a new High Court complex, 20 km away from the present building.

This decision has prompted mixed reactions within the legal fraternity. While some are in favour of moving to a larger, more modern building, others apprehend that the same will make things inconvenient for Bar members in terms of the commute and accessibility.

There is another, perhaps sentimental, but equally strong reason for advocates to oppose the move. It would mean that they will have to say goodbye to the imposing heritage building located in the city's Fort area.

Legal historian, solicitor and archivist Rajan Jayakar claimed that the reputation of the High Court did not only come from its renowned judges and lawyers, but also from the grandeur of its building. These sentiments were echoed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Sujata Manohar.

Meanwhile, lawyers including Senior Advocates Milind Sathe and Rajeev Chavan appreciated the move, as the new building would big enough to accommodate the High Court complex and several tribunals and chambers.

Bombay High Court
Bombay High Court Bombay High Court official website

As Mumbai lawyers envision a future where they will not practice in the heritage building, we turn back time to chronicle the history of the imposing edifice.

Gothic origins

Over 150 years ago, the second largest neo-gothic building in the city after the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway Terminus (then Victoria Terminus) came into being on the southern side of the island city of Bombay.

Bombay High Court
Bombay High CourtThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi

The architectural marvel was constructed for ₹16,44,528, which was ₹2,668 less than the sanctioned amount.

The marble tablet
The marble tablet
Dynamic dimensions of the heritage buidling
Dynamic dimensions of the heritage buidling

The Bombay High Court – Story of the Building written by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi highlights the unique carvings and statues across the premier court building.

Goddess of Justice (L) and Goddess of Mercy (R) - perched on top of the buidling
Goddess of Justice (L) and Goddess of Mercy (R) - perched on top of the buidlingThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi
Carvings on pillars
Carvings on pillarsThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi
Carvings on pillars
Carvings on pillars
Carvings on pillars
Carvings on pillarsThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi
Carvings on pillars
Carvings on pillarsFrom Colonial to Contemporary by Rahela Khorakiwala
Annexe building
Annexe building
Bombay High Court
Bombay High CourtOfficial website of Bombay High Court
The interiors, 1878 versus 2023
The interiors, 1878 versus 2023

When the structure was built in 1862, there was much appreciation for its grandeur. Senior Advocate Navroz Seervai commended the foresight of the architects.

“A building which was built for 10-12 judges now houses 30-40 judges. The conservationists have done a good job preserving it for so long. There are thousands of new lawyers coming in, and the volume of work is only increasing. But the fact that this building is being used, still, is something to marvel at."

In 1930, the government set up another building on the premises for the storage of records. Post independence, an annexe building was also constructed in the compound for the city civil and session courts. However, the High Court was short of space for judges, and the civil and sessions courts were transferred to the old Secretariat building in the Fort area.

The main building was declared a heritage structure within the Heritage Regulations of 1995, posing newer challenges for conservation and general upkeep. Now, it forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Precinct.

Space crunch and maintenance

One of the senior-most practising lawyers of the Bombay High Court, Senior Advocate Avinash Rana, said that even though there had been transformations within the structure since 1960, the building more or less remained the same.

“The building is beautifully made, but it is now bursting in its seams!” Seervai said. He added that courtrooms have been modernized and refurbished to utilise space in the best possible way.

There is no space for people to sit in courts, so they are sitting on piles of paper,” he said.

Storage department in High Court
Storage department in High CourtThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi

Former Bombay High Court judge Justice SC Dharmadhikari, who was also part of the High Court administrative committee, said candidly that maintaining engineering standards or doing repairs scientifically could have preserved the building in a better way.

“The moment you try to penetrate the walls of the permanent structure, you will be causing damage. The damage can be seen over the years. Had we done things scientifically, we could have avoided damage. We may have caused permanent damage too."

Electrical wires
Electrical wiresThe Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi
Water coolers around older water fountain (Up)
Overflowing pile of records (Down)
Water coolers around older water fountain (Up) Overflowing pile of records (Down)The Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi
Pipes surrounding an old tablet instituted in 1923
Pipes surrounding an old tablet instituted in 1923

Jayakar agreed, pointing out that improper internal changes - especially the construction of toilets in chambers - were the reason for structural damage to the building.

“Conservation architects will tell you that you are weakening the building because of the haphazard toilets. They are bound to have leakages."

Repair work ongoing
Repair work ongoing

New beginnings

A public interest litigation was filed in 2012 by a Mumbai-based lawyer seeking directions to the State government to provide a new High Court building with fixtures, furniture and other infrastructure.

A Bench led by then High Court judge Justice AS Oka (now Supreme Court judge) passed a judgment in 2019 directing the State government to offer a large and convenient plot of land for the construction of a new complex for the High Court.

Supreme Court judge Justice AS Oka
Supreme Court judge Justice AS Oka

All the stakeholders including the three Bar Associations - the Advocates' Association of Western India (AAWI), the Bombay Bar Association (BBA), and the Bombay Incorporated Law Society (BILS) also agreed that if the High Court is to function efficiently, it needs to be shifted to a larger premises.

Bombay Bar Association
Bombay Bar Association

In March 2023, the State government allotted the new land in Bandra. It decided that over 21 acres were going to be used for a court complex would include tribunals and the remaining land was supposed to be developed commercially for lawyers’ chambers, parking, etc.

In October 2023, a High-Power Committee was constituted to consider the demands of the relevant stakeholders.

To move or not to move?

Chavan, the former President of the AAWI, pointed out that all those who are opposing the move were highly impractical, as the present premises was inadequate to house additional courtrooms and the building could not take further pressure.

“One has to think of the next 100 or 150 years. The Central government has built a new Parliament since the old one was not adequate. Similarly, old court buildings are now inadequate and are just incapable of fulfilling the demands of future litigation of the next 100 years,” he said.

Sathe added that any repairs to the building would merely be a temporary solution.

“Toilets in this building have led to water leakages, leading to structural damage. There is a reinforcement of stones (used in the structure) that is done regularly. If something more needs to be done, it has to be done."

Retired High Court stenographer KPP Nair believes that the move to suburban Bandra would be most convenient for High Court staff, as most of them live in the suburbs. He also emphasized that over the last few decades, the number of staff per judge has increased.

“Initially, there was one stenographer for each judge. Now there are three officially, including a senior and two juniors. Then there is a pool of backup stenographers. Associates have increased. They have been moved out from the main building to the PwD building due to lack of space."

He added that the High Court staff did not have designated toilets and that they used washrooms earmarked for litigants or advocates. He hoped that the new complex would have a dedicated washroom for the thousands of staff members.

A visit to the government pleaders’ office showed the acute lack of space. Each person there was sitting amidst a pile of papers. The officers there revealed that half of the government pleaders and storage sat at another location outside the High Court compound, near Cooperage Hospital. The State government also had to shell out a hefty rent for the place.

Government lawyers said that the officers would not have any difficulty in travelling from their offices in South Mumbai to Bandra.

“The Court is for litigants and their accessibility is most important. Several officers travel to Mumbai from Sangli, Satara, Pune districts of Maharashtra on regular basis for court work anyway, it will cause no difference,” one of the State lawyers said.

The annexe building standing in front of the heritage structure
The annexe building standing in front of the heritage structure

Senior Advocate and incumbent President of BBA Nitin Thakker said that they had only agreed to shift out of the present heritage building, but not specifically to Bandra. He opined that the Central and State governments were not doing enough to ensure that the lands closer to the present High Court building, including the Port Trust lands, are tapped into.

“One feels that the government is giving us stepmotherly treatment. Between the two governments, they should find a solution. They are, after all, for the people. They should not treat the high court as a commercial entity. Why can’t the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) and MTNL buildings be taken over and re-vamped for the High Court? Everything will remain within this area. If necessary, seek Supreme Court intervention."

He added that a lack of transparency in the process was causing further problems, as stakeholders were not being informed of the moves.

“As per my sources, for the proposed plot (in Bandra) there is a Memorandum of Understanding signed with a Korean company which is required to be amended. We are informed that it has not yet happened. If the MoU is amended, the company will demolish existing buildings and build the new complex free of cost. But the State government will have to give them something in return, maybe some FSI for construction somewhere. We are not aware of this. This is what we have heard. Transparency is missing,” he said.

However, mere allotment of land was not the end solution, Thakkar opined. He says that the State government is expected to improve the present infrastructure to keep it functional till a new court complex is built.

Jayakar insisted that the present building had been built to last for a long time, and that it was possible to continue using the same. An additional structure for courts may not be necessary in the era of virtual courts, he added.

“If the courts become virtual and paperless (like Delhi High Court) do we need to house 100 judges in this building? Can they not operate from their houses? We have had top lawyers appearing from anywhere, London, for instance. We have seen judges hearing matters from their homes. If that is done, do you sincerely feel that the High Court has to shift somewhere else? It is not like you have to demolish something to bring in technology. You need a setup for digitization and space for that; one need not move the profession."

Justice SC Dharmadhikari
Justice SC Dharmadhikari

To Justice Dharmadhikari, the shift to a faraway location seemed symbolic of the legislature and the executive wanting to avoid judicial supervision over their work. He pointed out that the offices of the biggest litigants - the Central and State governments - continued to remain in South Mumbai, while the court building was proposed to move almost 20 km away.

“This just means they want minimal supervision of the Court over the government and their institutions. Facilitation in rendering justice comes when the adversaries are close by. Why not look for something close to the present heritage structure?

The non-heritage structure can be brought down and another building in line with the heritage structure can be erected. The other buildings around the High Court buildings are multi-storied too. Plus, internally, the heritage structure can be modernised without spoiling its grandeur,” the former judge said.

Taking this forward, Senior Advocate Darius Khambata suggested that a multi-storied building within the present court compound would serve the purpose. In his opinion, it would be a shame to let go of such a historical structure.

“There were suggestions that we could demolish the annexe building and then construct a multi-storied building keeping in mind the highest interest of the historic structure beside it. That would serve the purpose of space and also reduce the burden on the main structure”, the former Advocate General of Maharashtra and Additional Solicitor General of India said.

Senior Advocate Darius Khambata
Senior Advocate Darius Khambata

He suggested that before taking any decision, the State government should compare the costs of revamping the existing premises and shifting the Court.

Khambata said that priority should be given to infrastructure for speedy and efficient justice, and not merely the convenience of lawyers. He clarified that while it was always better for lawyers to be around the building for the litigants, it was not of utmost importance.

“Lawyers were first made to vacate the annexe building and move to the PwD building. Then, in 1987, when the lawyers had to vacate the PwD building, there was an initial apprehension about their survival. But then they purchased chambers outside the High Court premises and managed to work. Lawyers will survive, they always have."

Justice Manohar also suggested that there was no need to find a place away from the present building.

“One can keep judicial work in the main building and then transfer all offices into a building nearby. This institution can continue to be a part of the heritage area of Bombay. It is, after all, a landmark building. This building should be celebrated and valued like it was done on completing 150 years."

Justice (Retd) Sujata Manohar
Justice (Retd) Sujata Manohar

She opines that there is a disadvantage in shift the premises, as it would imply discarding the tradition and culture of the old structure. She said that future generations who join the legal profession would be reinforcing these traditions which the heritage structure would remind them.

“The High Court shows what one has achieved. The building has witnessed much of history. We had a Tilak trial; MK Gandhi practised here, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar did research for the Constitution in this building. We have had distinguished jurists, and we have witnessed a judge like Chief Justice MC Chagla. The building carries connotations of independence; of the judiciary, of lawyers and judges built over 150 years. The traditions that we have built should not be discarded just like that. It stands for independence and impartiality and that must not get diluted."

Court room 46, present day
Court room 46, present day

Expectations from the new building

With the shift to a newer building increasingly seeming like an eventuality, lawyers have given their suggestions on what they expect to see in the new premises. And the High Court has already taken these into account.

The 2019 judgment passed by the High Court had emphasised,

“Only the judiciary can determine what infrastructure it needs for its effective functioning. The State government cannot decide how many courtrooms, offices and other facilities this court needs."

The verdict included a list of expectations from various bar associations.

Expectations from the new court complex
Expectations from the new court complex

Advocate Gulnar Mistry added that the new court complex must provide space for litigants to sit while waiting for their matter, to avoid crowded courtrooms and corridors. Besides this, she said, some thought was also required to be put into the aesthetics of the architecture of the building of the highest court of the State.

Advocate Hamza Lakdawala added that the place required an arbitration and mediation centre, as was also observed by current Chief Justice Devendra Kumar Upadhyaya.

"The new complex should be built with a “technology first” approach as more and more litigation moves online,” he said.

Khambata suggested that the present litigation management requires an upgrade to avoid the burden on the courts and for the benefit of litigants.

Court room 46 (in session) Central Court as in 2003
Court room 46 (in session) Central Court as in 2003The Bombay High Court – Story of the Building by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi

What happens to the heritage building?

While stakeholders conceded that the present building is inadequate for the needs of present times, their admiration for the building remains the same.

Sathe suggested that converting an entire heritage building into a museum may generate more revenue for the State than it gets from court fees.

Lakdawala suggested that the heritage building should be declared a historical monument under the Maharashtra Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, to be preserved as is, so that it can serve as a museum of Mumbai’s legal history.

Mistry agreed that the restored building should be used as a museum and should contain portraits of women who were part of the legal history.

HIgh Court corridor
HIgh Court corridor

Jayakar, who curated the present High Court Museum located in a room on the ground floor, staunchly opposed the idea of converting the entire building into a museum. According to him, there weren’t many tangible items from history to display in such a big space.

“From where are the artefacts going to come? Whatever was possible to be shown, I have shown in the existing museum,” Jayakar said.

Chavan said that the existing building, once refurbished, can be used as a bench of the Supreme Court or a National Appeal Court for the ease of litigants.

The imminent shift of the Bombay High Court has posed existential questions for the lawyers. And as the Court physically moves towards Bandra, a few mull over where it is metaphorically going.

As an institution where is the Bombay High Court headed? If one consults lawyers (about the shifting of court), there will always be differing views based on convenience. What is important is to know what the institution has achieved and what it needs to achieve to meet the demands of the future for another 150 years. That should be focused on,” Mistry emphasised.

When the building completed 100 years in 1962, the first Indian Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court MC Chagla said,

“Men come and go, but institutions must go on, and in celebrating this centenary of the High Court, we can only hope and pray that at the end of the next hundred years, the historian will be truthfully able to say that irrespective of human weaknesses, the brilliant record of the institution as such was maintained."

Statue of first CJ MC Chagla on second floor outside room 52 where present CJ  presides
Statue of first CJ MC Chagla on second floor outside room 52 where present CJ presides
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