justice
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This article has been written by Moksh Ranawat.

Introduction

The concept of Lok Adalats stands as a unique contribution of the Indian legal system to world legal jurisprudence. It is an informal system of justice dispensation which has largely succeeded in providing a supplementary forum to litigants for determination and settlement of disputes[1]. Originating from Gandhian principles by Mahatma Gandhi, it has become a major helping hand to courts and is prescribed in Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 as well[2].

The advent of Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 further gives a statutory status to these Lok Adalats, promoting the constitutional mandate of Article 39-A of the Constitution of India, which directs the state to organize Lok Adalats to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity[3]. These Lok Adalats provide three-fold benefits involving speedy resolution of disputes coupled with reduced costs of litigation and avoiding further appeals, thereby making them the perfect instrument to resolve the heightened burdened on judiciary for disposing cases[4]. In 2018 alone, about 47 lakh cases were disposed of in National Lok Adalats, which included about 21 lakh pending cases and 26 lakh pre-litigation cases[5]. Therefore, their efficacy has been a linchpin in reducing excessive litigation[6].

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Keeping in mind their contribution to Indian jurisprudence, the author shall discuss the concept of Lok Adalats in the country, their functioning, advantages, places for improvement and their role as functionaries towards access to justice for the poor and downtrodden.

The functioning of Lok Adalats

Level of Organization

Lok Adalats are better known as the people’s courts, therefore they need to be available to people on every level of governance[7]. The Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 (Hereafter “the Act”) prescribes for several levels wherein Lok Adalats can be organized, ranging from the lowest courts to the apex court which can take cognizance and organize Lok Adalats for effective and speedy justice[8]. The persons residing over these Adalats include serving or retired judicial officials as well as other persons as prescribed by the authority conducting the Lok Adalats in the given area[9].

Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of these Lok Adalats is parallel to the courts organizing them, therefore it extends to any case or matter which is being heard by that court under its original jurisdiction[10]. Matters with respect to offences not compoundable under law are an exception to this jurisdiction. They cannot be adjudicated in Lok Adalats[11]. These courts may also take cognizance of cases as per provisions of the Act for disputes agreed by the parties to be resolved under them or if one of the parties makes an application to the courts for referring the case to Lok Adalats for settlement and the court is prima facie[12] satisfied that there are chances of settlement[13].

Resolution and Award

 After admission of disputes, the Lok Adalats proceed to hear the case and dispose of the matter by reaching a settlement or compromise in an expeditious manner[14]. The manner of resolution in Lok Adalats is more towards compromise and less towards conclusive determination[15]. In any case, if the parties are unable to reach a compromise and the Lok Adalat deems that matter needs more determination, it can refer the matter back to the courts for adjudication[16].

Eventually once the court is satisfied, it passes an award with respect to the dispute is final and binding on the parties[17]. The award is enforceable as a decree of the civil court and no appeal lies from this award[18]. Therefore, this provision ensures that the award is conclusive and the matter is put to rest once and for all.

Advantages of Lok Adalats

The reason behind the efficiency of Lok Adalats is based on several advantages which it holds over normal courts of law. These factors are responsible for its quick disposal of several disputes. They are:

Procedural Flexibility

There exist considerable procedural flexibility as major procedural laws such as the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 or the Indian Evidence Act, 1882 are not strictly enforced[19]. The parties can interact directly through their counsels which is not possible in a regular court of law. This dynamic nature of Lok Adalats allows them to conciliate both party interests and pass awards which are acceptable to both parties[20].

No Court Fees

There is no court fee payable when a matter is filed in a Lok Adalat[21]. If a matter pending in the court of law is referred to the Lok Adalat and is settled subsequently, the court fee originally paid in the court on the complaints/petition is also refunded back to the parties[22].

Final and Binding Award

Under Section 21 of the Act, the award passed by the Lok Adalats stand final and binding. As no appeal lies to this conclusive determination, the cases are put to rest on first instance[23].

Maintenance of Cordial Relationships

The main thrust of Lok Adalats is on compromise between parties. While conducting the proceedings, a Lok Adalat acts as a conciliator and not as an arbitrator. Its role is to persuade the parties to reach a solution and help in reconciling their contesting differences[24]. This encourages consensual arrangements. Therefore, disputes are not only settled but also the cordial relations between parties can be retained. Hence, it is a very healthy way of dispute resolution[25].

Areas for Improvement within Lok Adalats

Some areas of improvement whereby the functioning of Lok Adalats can be improved are as follows:

Enforceability lies with Civil Court

The awards passed by the Lok Adalats are deemed equivalent to decrees of the civil court[26]. Although, the enforcement of these decrees cannot be carried out by the Lok Adalats. This function rests with the civil courts, therefore the parties need to apply for enforcement to execute the award. It is the author’s recommendation that this power to enforce needs to be provided to the Lok Adalats itself to ensure that the decisions passed are executed to their finality.

Lack of Criminal Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of Lok Adalats with respect to criminal disputes is limited to offences which are compoundable under law[27]. This removes crimes such as that of petty theft other small crimes from the purview of Lok Adalats. Hence, this should be reviewed to bring petty crimes within the purview of Lok Adalats.

Lok Adalat and Access to Justice: A Symphonic Interplay

What is “Access to Justice”?

The term “access to justice” can be understood as “the right to ensure that every person is able to invoke the legal processes for legal redress irrespective of social or economic capacity” and “that every person should receive a just and fair treatment within the legal system”[28]. Basically, the right of every person to access judicial forums for putting forth their case can be termed as a chance to access justice.

Here, there lies an important point of difference between “access” to justice, and access to “justice”; wherein the former refers to whether a chance of redressal was provided to the aggrieved party whereas the latter refers to whether justice was served. Both these aspects have been analyzed in this article.

Role of Lok Adalats in providing “access” to justice

Since their inception in 1982, Lok Adalats have been the instrumentalities for the poor to have “access” to justice in our country, which is troubled with more than 3.3 crore cases (2018 figures) pending for adjudication till date[29]. The functioning of these Lok Adalats have been responsible for the disposal of more than 50 lakh cases in 2017 itself[30], thereby being a major modality for reduction of judicial workload. The average number of cases resolved by Lok Adalats stand at 4000 cases a day, therefore their existence is undoubtedly vital for solving the judicial backlog which exists in recent times[31].

A major feature of Lok Adalats to determine disputes without charging any fees has also been a strong incentive for the poor to approach the Lok Adalats for finality of their disputes. In contrast to filing an application as an indigent person under Order 33 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, this alternative dispute resolution mechanism stands as a much friendlier means for the poor to access legal redressal mechanisms. Hence, Lok Adalats can be said to have passed the test for providing “access” to justice to the poor.

Role of Lok Adalats in providing access to “justice”

The sheer right to get access to a legal redressal mechanism, cannot in the author’s view, be deemed sufficient justice. The financial status of parties to the dispute, their situations, fair procedure during trial and influence on the legal process also need to be considered to understand whether a proper chance to access “justice” was provided to them[32].

Many times, parties settle in Lok Adalats as they cannot afford the expenses of continuing with litigation. There is compromise out of necessity rather than will. This can be related due to the issues in our legal system and therefore it is difficult to deem this as a fair chance. Hence, it is rather difficult to say that the Lok Adalats have passed the test for providing access to “justice” to the poor.

Conclusion

Lok Adalats have become an integral part of the Indian legal system and have become the apertures for access to justice for the poor and downtrodden. The have bridged the gap to legal aid, but still have certain areas of improvement which could increase their efficiency even more. While they are acting well to bridge the gap of “access” to justice, there needs to be a review of their effectivity in providing aggrieved parties true access to “justice”. With finality, one can conclude that there is more than meets the eye which can be done to make Lok Adalats a better redressal system towards rising litigation.

Endnotes

[1] Dr. Pratiksha Baxi, Access to Justice and Rule-of-[Good] Law: The Cunning of Judicial Reform in India, pp. 1- 37, Insitute of Human Development Report, New Delhi, (3:09 AM, 5 June, 2019), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pratiksha_Baxi/publication/228914213_Access_to_Justice_and_Rule-of_Good_Law_The_Cunning_of_Judicial_Reform_in_India/links/0deec5373d1e208a71000000/Access-to-Justice-and-Rule-of-Good-Law-The-Cunning-of-Judicial-Reform-in-India.pdf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iftikhar Hussain Bhat, Access to Justice: A Critical Analysis of Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in India, pp. 46-53, 2 International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention Vol. 5, ( 7:45 AM, June 5, 2019), http://www.ijhssi.org/papers/v2(5)/version-5/G254653.pdf.

[4] Sarah Leah Whitson, Neither Fish, Nor Flesh, Nor Good Red Herring Lok Adalats: An Experiment in Informal Dispute Resolution in India, 15 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev p. 391 (1991-1992), ( 5:52 PM, 3 June, 2019), https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/hasint15&div=22&id=&page=&t=1559721994.

[5] Live Laws News Network, Over 10 Lakh Cases Settled in National Lok Adalat, Live Law, (10:32 AM, 13th March, 2019), https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/over-10-lakh-cases-settled-in-national-lok-adalat-143539

[6] Supra 3.

[7] Oyshee Gupta, Suhaas Arora, Lok Adalats, ACADEMIKE, (12:22 PM, June 4, 2019), https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/lok-adalats/.

[8] Section 19(1), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[9] Section 19(2), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[10] Section 19(5), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[11] Section 19(5), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[12]  “Prima facie” here refers to “a first instance look of the matter in dispute.”

[13] Section 20, The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[14] Marc Galanter, JK. Krishnan, Debased Informalism: Lok Adalats and Legal Rights in Modern India, Beyond Common Knowledge: Empirical Approaches to the Rule of Law, (2003) pp. 96-141; State of Punjab vs. Jalour Singh, 2008 (2) SCC 660.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Section 21(2), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[18] Section 21(1), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[19] Supra at 3.

[20] B.P. Moideen Sevamandir and another Vs. A.M. Kutty Hassan, (2009) 2 SCC 198.

[21] Supra at 4.

[22] Government of India, Lok Adalat, National Legal Services Authority, (3:25 PM, June 4, 2019), https://nalsa.gov.in/lok-adalat

[23] Section 21(2), The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (Act No. 39 of 1987)

[24] Archana Agarwal, Lok Adalats and Judicial Reform in India, 1 Strengthening Governance through Access to Justice, pp. 38-52

[25] Ibid.

[26] Supra at 18.

[27] Section 19(5) expressly bars the Lok Adalats from entertaining offences which are non-compoundable in nature.

[28] S. Murlidhar, Law, Poverty and Legal Aid: Access to Criminal Justice., Lexis Nexis Butterworths, pp. 52- 107.

[29] Jayesh R., 3.3 crore cases pending in Indian courts, pendency figure at its highest: CJI Dipak Misra, Business Today, (8:47 PM, June 5, 2019), https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/3-3-crore-cases-pending-indian-courts-pendency-figure-highest-cji-dipak-misra/story/279664.html.

[30]Times News Network, More than 50 lakh cases disposed on an average by National Lok Adalats, Times of India, (9:11 PM, June 2, 2019), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/more-than-50-lakh-cases-disposed-on-an-average-by-national-lok-adalats/articleshow/62921030.cms.

[31] Rashmita Das, Lok Adalat Solves 4000 Cases in A Day: Take Your Case for Speedy Solution, MyAdvo Blog, (11:45 PM, June 3, 2019), https://www.myadvo.in/legal-news/lok-adalat-solves-4000-cases-in-a-day-take-your-case-for-speedy-solution/.

[32] Supra at 3.


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