This article has been written by Raslin Saluja, from KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar. The author describes the working and role of e-mega adalats.
Ever since the onset of COVID-19, the world has been trying to adjust to the new normal amidst the pandemic guidelines. Owing to the restricted judicial functioning and the country’s progressive legal system trying to keep pace with the demanding situations, the concept of E-court was extended to the functioning of the Lok Adalats. To its end, e-Mega Adalats were introduced.
Lok adalats/e-mega adalats
Lok adalats are an alternate dispute redressal mechanism conducted by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) alongside other legal services institutions. The concept of Lok Adalat (people’s court) is India’s own unique innovation. With its history of setting courts in even the grass root levels, lok adalats are rather an attractive alternative option for those in need.
As it is, the courts continue to remain overburdened with pending cases due to procedural delays, long waiting times, high litigation costs, and various other reasons. To that end, lok adalats have been proved to be a very effective medium with their people’s court verdict philosophy. They come in handy with their positive contribution to the administration of justice with speedy justice and saving time from lengthy procedures. They are the only institutionalized organization that truly provides justice free of costs. They preserve and maintain cordial relations and aim to solve the backlog of cases specifically catering to the common, poor, backward, and less fortunate sections of the society.
Their types and functioning
Lok adalats mainly deal with the cases that are pending before any court of law or are in the pre-litigation stage expected to be filed before the Court. Lok adalats mainly act as facilitators, encouraging amicable solutions in order to bring a mutual settlement. They are party-centric who guide and persuade the parties to reach an amicable conclusion without imposing their own decisions. Thus, any offence which ought not to be amicably settled under the laws falls out of their scope.
It derives its statutory status from the Legal Services Authorities Act of 1987, pursuant to the constitutional mandate under Art.39-A. The Act deals with the provisions of lok adalats under chapter VI from Section 19 to 22 stipulating their organization, cognizable cases, awards granted, and their powers. Further, Section 22A–22E deals with laws of permanent lok adalats. According to the Act, lok adalats can be organized at various levels at the state, high court, district, taluk, national level.
It is usually the task of the member secretary to organize and constitute its benches. The bench comprises of a sitting or a retired judge of High Court, or retired judicial officer, or anyone or both of a member from the legal profession; a social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections and interested in the implementation of legal services schemes, or programs, or a person engaged in paralegal activities of the area, preferably a woman depending upon if it is organized at the state, district, high court or at taluk level.
National Lok Adalat: These are usually held on a single day at regular intervals where all the courts from the Supreme Court till the taluk levels throughout the country. From February 2015, national lok adalats are being held on a specific subject matter every month.
Permanent Lok Adalat: These are set up as permanent bodies with a chairman and two members for providing a compulsory pre-litigation mechanism for reaching the settlement of cases relating to public utility services like transport, postal, telegraph, etc. Here, they get the jurisdiction to decide the dispute which has elements of the settlement, even if the parties fail to reach a settlement, except, the dispute does not relate to any offence as provided in Section 22C(8).
This also falls in line with the concept that if the judges are satisfied there is no valid defense for the party to unreasonably oppose a reasonable settlement against the claim of the opposite party, they may go ahead and pass an award on the basis of the materials before them without the consent of one or more parties. Further, the award of the permanent lok adalat is final and binding on all the parties. Their pecuniary jurisdiction is up to Rs. ten lakhs. The lok adalat may conduct the proceedings in such a manner as it considers appropriate, taking into account the circumstances of the case and other wishes of the parties.
Mobile Lok Adalats: These travel from one location to another to resolve disputes in order to facilitate the resolution of disputes through this mechanism and take it at the doorsteps of those in need. Their mobility helps them in organizing the mobile lok adalats in various parts of the country.
The lok adalats take cognizance of those cases as mentioned in Section 19(5), where the parties agree of or where one of the parties makes an application to the court provided the court is satisfied with the chances of settlement or if the court refers a case being satisfied with the matter being appropriate.
In its settlement process, they are guided by the principle of natural justice, equity, fair play, and other legal rules. If a referenced case cannot reach a conclusion then it is sent back to the court and if in general a settlement is not reached, lok adalat may advise the parties to approach the court according to Section 20 of the Act.
Under Section 21, the awards of the lok adalats are to be valued as a decree of a civil court and if settlement is reached in a referenced case, then there will be a refund of the court fee paid. No appeal lies against its award before any court and every award is final and binding on the parties of the dispute.
The same powers of that a civil court are vested in the lok adalat for summoning the attendance of a witness, discovery, and production of a document, reception of evidence on affidavits, requisitioning any public record or document or its copy from any court or office and certain other matters as will be prescribed. They have the power of determining their own procedure for the determination of the dispute and its proceedings are deemed to be judicial proceedings.
The functioning of lok adalats is also dealt with under the National Legal Services Authority (Lok Adalat) Regulations, 2009. It takes care of all the procedures to be followed, composition, organization, allotment of cases and jurisdiction, their powers and administrative assistance, maintaining confidentiality, reaching a settlement and award, and the member penalists. Thus, these rules along with modification as and when required are adhered to for organizing lok adalats by the NALSA and other state legal services authorities.
How are the e-mega adalats helping
As per the reports available online, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Bihar, and New Delhi were among the first few states who organized the country’s first-ever e-mega adalat. All of which garnered positive results and feedback. The Legal Services Authority of Rajasthan took up about 47,654 cases and settled 33,476 of them. In July of 2020, the state of Chattisgarh conducted the e-mega lok adalat through the video conferencing feature and had virtual hearings.
It showed immensely positive statistics in settling over 2200 cases in the attempt of taking the justice delivery system to the doorsteps of the litigants. All the courts in the 23 districts of the State were virtually connected and managed to reach an amicable settlement pioneering the concept nationwide.
Even Delhi‘s first e-Lok adalat organized by the Delhi Legal Services Authority managed to settle 5838 cases using the digitally organized online dispute resolution mechanism. Similarly, J&K disposed of a total of 4273 cases out of the 5757 cases received along with the settlement of a 40-year-old case. Then followed the state of Odisha, which held their first e-Lok adalat in all its 30 districts disposing of about 2061 cases and settling 171 pre-litigation cases.
Even Karnataka’s first state-level e-mega lok adalat was a huge success in settling 1.15 lac cases which were soon followed by a second one that was held in December of 2020. It went on to make history and broke the record by solving the highest number of cases about which 30 % were admitted based on the publicity done by the media reports. Thus, considering the reports, it is safe to say that they took up the pace and have been of great help even in their initial sessions.
Execution of e-lok adalats
In most cases, the State Legal Services Authority partnered with online dispute resolution platforms as a result of its online collaborative dispute resolution keeping the wheels of justice rolling. One such famous platform is SAMA which has been entrusted with the capacity of providing efficient service by the Government.
These platforms majorly bridge the technical gap and provide assistance to the legal institutions, the lawyers, and the parties in accessing an end-to-end online dispute resolution platform. According to the FAQ template for Bihar’s online lok adalat, they send out notices to the parties through email/WhatsApp/text. They provide a user-friendly video conferencing service for pre-counseling sessions, the signature support service, a case manager to look after the administrative aspects and help the counselors appointed.
They also maintain a report of the total number of cases taken, disposed of and settled. So far, SAMA has successfully assisted the State Legal Service Authorities of Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala, and Bihar. Their feedback from the member penalties even suggested replicating the practice in other states.
It follows its own set of procedures to maintain confidentiality by getting the nondisclosure agreement signed by all the people involved. The data gets completely deleted from their system after 10 days of completion of online lok adalat. In case of network issues, an alternative phone call conference service will be used or any other video conferencing platform. But SAMA requires the consent of the parties to be procured by the LSA and within the timelines as provided. The cause lists are also to be duly prepared by the LSA in the manner of the form provided by SAMA otherwise it gets automatically rejected.
Typically all conciliators and judges require a computer/laptop with a functional webcam, a court personnel staff with a functional phone line in case phone conference calls are required to be made. The stenographer will be present to note the terms of the settlement. Case files should also be carried along for the particular day and other resources suggested by the secretary.
On a typical pre-sitting day, the clients are called and reminded of their schedules and are provided with a link to join the conference by the SAMA. Once everyone has joined, hearings initiate, and then the case is either settled, not settled, or adjourned. Upon settlement, the award is prepared by the court staff and steno and informed to the secretary, else given another date if adjourned or is disposed of.
The award has to be strictly made according to the terms given by SAMA and it will not be responsible for making any changes. Once the award terms are communicated to SAMA, they get it e-signed at the earliest through a link sent by way of SMS or email. A copy is then sent to SLSA and in case any corrections are required they get sent back to SAMA. In case the party cannot e-sign they will then be called by the court staff of that district to physically sign it on the final days of lok adalat. Besides these rules, the Online Lok Adalats proceedings are conducted according to the Nalsa (Lok Adalat) Amended Regulations, 2019.
Why are they needed
Conflict resolution for a fact has proved to be time-consuming, laborious, and expensive. The traditional adversarial method of litigation has also far too many complex inner workings and structural obstructions which makes justice beyond the reach for large portions of society. This has led people to branch out and experiment with other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms which have been an integral part of the country’s past making them the next thing. Lok adalats are one such alternate medium which rather than focussing on right or wrong, help parties in a collaborative effort to reach an amicable settlement free of cost. They ensure that the opportunities to secure justice are given to people beyond their economic status or disabilities.
They provide other benefits including no strict application of procedural and active participation of the parties which often assists in keeping their relationships intact and gives mutually beneficial solutions. They make sure that these decisions are reached voluntarily and that the terms of the settlement are not unreasonable or one-sided. The disputes could directly be brought before the Lok Adalats instead of courts. Further, since it is a mutual compromise, no appeal lies from its decision which could delay the process of settlement.
As on 30.09.2015, more than 15.14 lakhs lok adalats have been organized in the country since its inception, more than 8.25 crore cases have been settled by this mechanism so far. This data speaks for itself and even the e-lok adalats have shown great outcomes as mentioned earlier. Thus, besides the benefits of settlement before lok adalats, they also help in alleviating the burden of pending cases before the judiciary. Even very recently, after 2 sessions in September and December of 2020, Karnataka State Legal Services Authority again organized its second e-Mega lok adalat in March 2021 and settled 332936 cases out of 544376. It dealt with cases of bank recoveries, electricity bills, labor disputes, land acquisition, MACT cases, NI Act cases U/S 138, other civil cases, revenue cases, pay and allowance cases, water bills cases excluding the non-compoundable ones.
Thus, even though lok adalats have been of immense help, it is important to ensure that it preserves its essence of simple hassle-free access to justice and wider reach. While inaugurating the first e-mega lok adalat in Karnataka, even Justice N V Ramanna observed that the major obstruction in its execution remains to popularise it in the grass root levels where the video conferencing facility is not always available. This holds true, otherwise, it will fail to serve its purpose if it cannot cater to the needs of the weaker portions of society for which it was originally created.
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