On Sunday, the Press Trust of India reported that the Lakshadweep administration has mooted a proposal to move the Union Territory from the jurisdiction of the Kerala High Court to that of the Karnataka High Court.
While Lakshadweep district collector S Askar Ali had denied such a plan, the news report comes at a time when several petitioners have moved the Kerala High Court against the so-called reforms that the Union Territory’s administrator Praful Khoda Patel has proposed for the group of islands.These proposals include the implementation of a Goondas Act, changes in land development and planning regulation, and a ban on beef and the cattle trade ban.
On Tuesday, the Kerala High Court stayed the decision of the Lakshadweep administration to remove chicken and meat from the menu of its mid-day meals scheme. It also stayed orders that shut several dairy farms in the Union Territory.
Given the context of the Kerala High Court’s intervention in these decisions of the administration, the news report that the Union Territory may want a change of High Court jurisdiction to Karnataka led to critical comments from several people on social media, despite the administration denying that such a proposal has been made.
The controversy also raises legal questions.
Can a High Court jurisdiction be changed so easily? What is the procedure in the Constitution for such a change?
High Court jurisdiction
High Courts are constitutional courts. They are also courts of record, eamning that their judgements are used as precedent in deciding other cases.
The Constitution has a significant portion detailing the powers and functions of High Courts, given their important position in the federal structure. Chapter V of the Constitution, which consists of Article 214 to Article 231, deals exclusively with matters related to High Courts.
Till the states were reorganised on a linguistic basis in 1956, Parliament had the powers to extend the jurisdiction of all High Courts beyond the state in which they were located and also remove areas from their jurisdiction. For example, Coorg was removed from the jurisdiction of Madras High Court and placed under the then Mysore High Court through the Mysore High Court (Extension of Jurisdiction to Coorg) Act, 1952.
However, with the reorganisation of states and the passage of Constitution (7th Amendment) Act, 1956, this power of Parliament to extend or curtail the jurisdiction of a High Court was restricted to Union Territories alone.
The new Article 230 brought in through the amendment Act said that “Parliament may by law extend the jurisdiction of a High Court to, or exclude the jurisdiction of a High Court from, any Union Territory”.
This power with regards to the Union Territories was made exclusive to the Centre by including it as Entry 79 in the Union List under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. On the other hand, the Amendment, through Article 241, gave Parliament the powers to constitute a High Court for a Union Territory or declare any court in such territory to be a High Court. Such a High Court established in a Union Territory has the same constitutional status as that of a High Court in a state.
What do these provisions mean?
While the Centre directly administers Lakshadweep, it has no powers to change the High Court jurisdiction through executive action. That is, it cannot simply pass an order to make the changes. Neither can the administrator, Praful Khoda Patel.
Given that the Constitution says that the Parliament “may by law” alter the jurisdiction of a High Court in relation to a Union Territory, the only way Lakshadweep could be shifted from the control of Kerala High Court to the Karnataka High Court is by passing a law in Parliament.
Since Lakshadweep has close cultural ties to Kerala, with a majority of its population speaking Malayalam, and given the geographical proximity of Kerala to the islands, an attempt to change the High Court jurisdiction could encounter tough opposition in Parliament.