The Mauryan king headed the judicial system. The Arthashastra mentions courts to try law-breakers and settle disputes at various levels. The king held his own court to provide justice and, according to some sources, the chief justice had four or five judges to assist him.
At the local level, there were courts formed by citizens, apart from courts formed by trade guilds and village assemblies.
There were civil and criminal courts which are mentioned in the Arthashastra. The dharmasthiya were the civil court and the kantakasodhana was the criminal wing. The former dealt with civil matters and was presided over by three amatyas and three dharmasthas.
There were rules for court procedures and the manner in which an agreement could be nullified. The criminal courts were special tribunals presided over by three amatyas or pradestris aided by spies and informers.
They were expected to protect the kingdom by curbing political offences, theft, and murder, use of fraudulent weights and measures, and corruption. They negotiated the wages given to the workers and supervised their conduct.
The law sources, according to Kautilya, were dharma (accepted principles), vyavahara (legal codes current at the time) charitra or customs and rajasasaru
(the king’s decree). Cases were registered and witnesses were produced. Decision was taken by a body of arbitrators with a system of appeal to the king.
Megasthenes’ account seems to indicate that theft was a rare occurrence in the Mauryan kingdom. But it actually appears that crime and breach of laws were common at the time. The Arthashastra mentions punishments ranging from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’.
Megasthenes mentions the punishment of mutilation for false evidence and death for harming the artisans attached to the royalty. Those who enforced the law had to face punishments if they themselves broke the law.
The penalties mentioned in the Arthashastra were graded according to varna hierarchies. Scholars have noted that a shudra was punished more severely than a brahman for the same type of offence.