The Lok Adalat is an innovative Indian contribution to the global jurisprudence. It is one of the efficient alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that have the potential to provide amicable settlements of differences. It also provides for an inclusive justice as envisaged by the Constitution of India. However, currently, this mechanism has lost public trust due to lack of resources and skilled manpower, differences among judges and lawyers and inefficiency along with the lack of consideration of public sensitivity. Thus, it is vital for structurally and culturally reform this mechanism so that it can achieve its original goal.
What is Lok Adalat?
- Lok Adalat (People’s Court) is one of India’s alternate dispute resolution mechanisms.
- It is where the cases that are pending or at the pre-litigation stage in a court of law are settled.
- This system, based on Gandhian principles, aims to settle disputes through arbitration at the grass-root level.
What is the legal basis for Lok Adalat?
- Lok Adalats were given the statutory status under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987
- This Act constitutes legal service authorities to provide free legal services to the weaker sections of the society according to Article 39 A of the Indian Constitution.
- It also consists of various provisions for settlements of disputes through Lok Adalat.
- According to this Act, the decision made by the Lok Adalats is deemed to be a case of a civil court and is final and binding on all parties and no appeal against such an award lies before any court of law.
- The strict rule of Civil Procedural Court and evidence is not applicable in Lok Adalat and the discussions and decisions are informal.
- In 2002, amendments were made in the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to make Lok Adalats permanent body to settle disputes related to public utility services.
- The Centre and state authorities may establish Permanent Lok Adalats for determining issues pertaining to public utility services, which include transport service, postal, telegraph or telephone service, the supply of power, light and water to the public, public sanitation, insurance services and other services as notified by the Central and State governments.
How did Lok Adalat come to be?
- The concept of Lok Adalats has deep roots in the Indian legal history and has close allegiance to the culture and perception of justice in the Indian ethos.
- However, it was not followed for the last few centuries before independence, especially during the British colonial era.
- Now it has come back to existence to relieve the heavy burden on courts with pending cases and to give relief to the litigants who are facing a delay in the justice.
- It has proven to be one the efficient and important alternative dispute resolution system and is most suited to the Indian environment, culture and social interests.
- The camps of Lok Adalats were first held on 14th March 1982 at Junagadh, Gujarat. It has now been extended to all of India.
What is the jurisdiction of Lok Adalat?
- Lok Adalat has jurisdiction on any case pending before or any matter falling within the jurisdiction of and is not brought before any court for which the Lok Adalat is organised.
- It can deal with cases like compoundable civil, revenue and criminal cases, motor accident compensation claims, partition claims, damages cases, matrimonial and family disputes, land-related cases, bounded labour cases, bank unpaid loan cases, and so on.
- Despite the wide-ranging jurisdiction, the Lok Adalat is not allowed to deal with the non-compoundable criminal cases under any law. Thus, serious crimes are kept outside the ambit of Lok Adalats.
What are the levels of Lok Adalat?
State Authority Level:
- The Member Secretary of the State Legal Services Authority organising the Lok Adalat would constitute benches at this level.
- Each bench would comprise of sitting or retired High Court Judge or a sitting or retired judicial officer, a member from the legal profession, and a social worker
- This social worker should be involved in the upliftment of the weaker areas and must be interested in the implementation of legal services, plans or projects.
High Court Level:
- The Secretary of the High Court Legal Services Committee constitutes benches for Lok Adalat at High Court level.
- Each bench will be consist of a sitting or retired judge of the High Court and any one or both of either a member from the legal profession.
- The social worker involved in the upliftment of the marginalised is also included as a part of this bench.
- At this level, the Secretary of the District Legal Services Authority will establish benches of Lok Adalat.
- The bench consists of sitting or retired judicial officer and any one or both of either a member from the legal profession and/or social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections of the society.
- This social worker must also be interested in the implementation of legal services schemes or programmes or a person involved in para-legal activities in the area and should preferably be a woman.
- The Secretary of the Taluk Legal Services Committee establishes benches of Lok Adalat.
- Each bench consists of a sitting or retired legal officer and any one or both of either a member from the legal profession as well as a social worker involved in the upliftment of the weaker areas.
- The social worker must be interested in the execution of the legal services or should be involved in para-legal exercises of the area, ideally a woman.
What are the types of Lok Adalat?
National Lok Adalat:
- National Level Lok Adalats are held for at regular interim on a single day throughout the nation, in every one of the courts, from the Supreme Court till the Taluk Levels, wherein the cases are disposed of in gigantic amounts.
- They are held every two months across the country to dispose of the pending cases.
- According to the Law Ministry statistics, more than 50 lakh cases are disposed of annually on an average by these courts
Permanent Lok Adalat:
- It was established according to Section 22 B of the Legal Service Authorities Act, 1987.
- These are permanent bodies with a Chairman and two members giving an obligatory pre-litigation system for conciliation and settlement of cases pertaining to public utility services.
- In these courts, even if there is a failure in reaching settlement, the Permanent Lok Adalat has the jurisdiction to decide the matter, provided, the dispute does not relate to any offence.
- The award given by the Permanent Lok Adalat is last and official for every one of the parties.
- The jurisdiction of Permanent Lok Adalat is up to Rs.10 Lakhs.
Portable Lok Adalats:
- These are set up in different parts of the country to resolve matters by encouraging resolution of disputes and easing the burden on the formal judiciary.
- These dispute settlement bodies would travel from one location to another to resolve differences in an amicable manner.
What are the powers of Lok Adalat?
- Lok Adalat has the power of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure.
- It also has the power to summon and enforce the attendance of any witness and to examine him/her on oath
- It has the power to enforce the discovery and production of any document and receive evidence on affidavits
- It also has the power to requisition of any public record or document
- It even has the power to specify its own procedure for the determination of any dispute coming before it
Why do we need Lok Adalat?
- It is a court that provides free justice. If the case is already filed in the regular court, the fee paid will be refunded if the disputes are settled via Lok Adalat. This is in consideration to the economically weaker section of the society.
- It allows for amicable settlement for parties as they can directly interact with the judge even if they are represented by their lawyer. These parties can explain their stand in the dispute, which is impossible in the normal courts.
- It reduces unwanted delays by doing away the longwinded legal procedures and formalities and aims for mutual settlements to reduce the chances for the further need for appeals.
- The procedure followed by Lok Adalat is simple, flexible, non-technical and informal. There is no need for strict procedural laws like the Civil Procedure Code and Evidence Act while determining the claims of the parties.
- The lawyers are not essential during the conciliation process of Lok Adalat. However, they can assist the proceedings by helping parties understand contentious issues and available alternatives and persuade them to arrive at a dispute settlement.
- It disposes of cases via collaborative and participatory efforts of lawyers, social workers, administrative authorities etc., who are actively involved in the dispute resolutions.
- It significantly reduces the burden of the formal judiciary so that the latter can deal with more serious cases.
- This mechanism helps spread awareness at the grass-root level about the fundamental rights and duties mentioned in the numerous social and welfare legislation.
- It brings justice to the doorsteps of people by organising at various places like villages, slums, industrial areas, labour colonies etc.
- There is neither a victor nor a vanquished and both the contestants are gainers and winners.
- This mechanism promotes local unity and secures substantial equity and social justice.
What are the problems faced by Lok Adalat?
- Currently, Lok Adalat is considered as one of the best alternative disputes resolution systems in India.
- However, like every other system, it too suffers from a few limitations.
- Though it is true that “Justice delayed is justice denied”, it is also true that a hurried justice is justice buried.
- Thus, speedy resolutions must not impair the rights of parties.
- In reality, Judges are pressured to quickly dispose of the cases for political gains, leading to limited consideration to the parties’ rights and needs.
- Lawyers are sometimes reluctant to refer the matter for settlement in Lok Adalat.
- There are also instances of parties pressurising their lawyers to stick up to strict procedures of the court.
- Sometimes there are even the cases where a party’s attorney is unprepared or not present, which subsequently prevents parties from reaching a settlement.
- There are even instances of antagonism among the lawyers and judges.
- Another major drawback of this mechanism is that the organisation of the Lok Adalat is mainly based on compromise or settlement between parties. If the parties do not arrive at a consensus, the case is either returned to the court of law or the parties are advised to seek a remedy in the court of law. It leads to unnecessary delays in the dispensation of justice.
- This issue is addressed by the Permanent Lok Adalat.
- However, Permanent Lok Adalat also is faced with few drawbacks.
- There are concerns that the persons appointed for Permanent Lok Adalat will not have the necessary legal background.
- Currently, specialised tribunals are appointed with the representatives of social organisations or experts.
- In the case of mechanisms set up to resolve disputes raised by consumers, members other than Chairman are persons without a legal background.
- There were also instances of members without a legal background in administrative tribunals. These members only have administrative experience.
- While deciding the dispute, the provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act will not be applicable. This means that the determination or decisions will be in a summary manner.
- A decision is possible only if those cases where there exists an element of the settlement. In such cases, the Permanent Lok Adalat formulates terms of a possible settlement and gives such terms to the concerned parties for their observations.
- These observations will be considered based on the evidence produced by the parties.
- If they do not consent to the settlement, Permanent Lok Adalat shall decide the dispute.
- However, the decision or the opinion of the Permanent Lok Adalats as to whether there exist elements of settlement is also a matter that can be subjected to judicial review under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.
What can be the way forward?
- Legal literacy and legal aid programmes should be provided for the poor and the socially and economically marginalised societies.
- Awareness camps must be conducted at the grass-root levels and mass media can be utilised for this purpose. This is to encourage people to participate in the proceedings of Lok Adalat voluntarily.
Bringing lawyers on board:
- The quality of legal aid provided by lawyers must be improved.
- The remunerations offered from legal service authorities to lawyers should be increased so that they are encouraged to provide effective legal assistance to the needy.
- The jurisdiction of permanent Lok Adalats can be expanded to include areas like business disputes or conflicts where the public at large are involved and matters where the government is involved either directly or indirectly.
Cultural & structural reforms:
- Culturally, there should be a balance between a formal and informal forum so that people are encouraged to seek redressal from Lok Adalats.
- In doing so, these courts can defeat many social injustices in the rural culture by “indigenising” some protections of the official judicial system.
- There must be an ideal balance between a national vision of rights based on equality and justice and a local vision of decentralised judicial administration, local self-rule and popular justice free from artifice and deceit associated with formal courts.
- Given India’s diversity, it is better to incorporate the characteristics and processes of conciliation specific to each locality.
- In order to achieve these, resources must be mobilised to Lok Adalats to allow them to be held more regularly. Staff, funding and facilities must be provided for it to be run more effectively and make it more structurally sound.
- Specialists of the concerned disputes can also be incorporated into this mechanism.
- The social workers must be provided with free legal training so that they can help the needy from being exploited by the lawyers.
- In order to regain the public confidence on Lok Adalat, the courts should encourage mandatory referral to this mechanism so that parties can overcome their prejudice or lack of understanding of the process.
The system of Lok Adalat is well appreciated for its capability to dispose of the cases through amicable settlements. Despite this, it should be noted the overall functioning of the Lok Adalat appears to be appreciable and not remarkable. Therefore, this mechanism needs to be strengthened to achieve the constitutional goal of “equal and social justice” to the fullest extent. In doing so, the public’s confidence in the judiciary can be regained.
Practice question for mains:
Critically examine the issues faced by the Lok Adalats in India. How can this mechanism be improved to provide inclusive justice? (250 words)