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Lok Adalat: A Step Towards Justice

The concept of Lok Adalat 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. 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.

NALSA along with other Legal Services Institutions conducts Lok Adalat. Lok Adalat is one of the alternative dispute redressal mechanisms, it is a forum where disputes/cases pending in the court of law or at pre-litigation stage are settled/ compromised amicably. Lok Adalat have been given statutory status under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987.

Under the said Act, the award (decision) made by the Lok Adalat is deemed to be a decree 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. If the parties are not satisfied with the award of the Lok Adalat though there is no provision for an appeal against such an award, but they are free to initiate litigation by approaching the court of appropriate jurisdiction by filing a case by following the required procedure, in exercise of their right to litigate.

The advent of Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 further gives a statutory status to these Lok Adalat, promoting the constitutional mandate of Article 39-A of the Constitution of India, which directs the state to organize Lok Adalat to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on a basis of equal opportunity.

These Lok Adalat 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. In 2018 alone, about 47 lakh cases were disposed of in National Lok Adalat, which included about 21 lakh pending cases and 26 lakh pre-litigation cases. Therefore, their efficacy has been a linchpin in reducing excessive litigation.

Keeping in mind their contribution to Indian jurisprudence, the author shall discuss the concept of Lok Adalat 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 Adalat

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

Jurisdiction
The jurisdiction of these Lok Adalat 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. Matters with respect to offences not compoundable under law are an exception to this jurisdiction. They cannot be adjudicated in Lok Adalat. 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 Adalat for settlement and the court is prima facie satisfied that there are chances of settlement.

Resolution and Award

After admission of disputes, the Lok Adalat proceed to hear the case and dispose of the matter by reaching a settlement or compromise in an expeditious manner. The manner of resolution in Lok Adalat is more towards compromise and less towards conclusive determination. 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.

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

Advantages of Lok Adalat

The reason behind the efficiency of Lok Adalat 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:
  1. 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. The parties can interact directly through their counsels which is not possible in a regular court of law. This dynamic nature of Lok Adalat allows them to conciliate both party interests and pass awards which are acceptable to both parties.
     
  2. No Court Fees

    There is no court fee payable when a matter is filed in a Lok Adalat. 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.
     
  3. Final and Binding Award

    Under Section 21 of the Act, the award passed by the Lok Adalat stand final and binding. As no appeal lies to this conclusive determination, the cases are put to rest on first instance.
     
  4. Maintenance of Cordial Relationships

    The main thrust of Lok Adalat 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. 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.

Areas for Improvement within Lok Adalat

Some areas of improvement whereby the functioning of Lok Adalat can be improved are as follows:
  1. Enforceability lies with Civil Court
    The awards passed by the Lok Adalat are deemed equivalent to decrees of the civil court. Although, the enforcement of these decrees cannot be carried out by the Lok Adalat. 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 Adalat itself to ensure that the decisions passed are executed to their finality.
     
  2. Lack of Criminal Jurisdiction
    The jurisdiction of Lok Adalat with respect to criminal disputes is limited to offences which are compoundable under law. This removes crimes such as that of petty theft other small crimes from the purview of Lok Adalat. Hence, this should be reviewed to bring petty crimes within the purview of Lok Adalat.
     

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". 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 analysed in this article.

Role of Lok Adalat in providing "access" to justice

Since their inception in 1982, Lok Adalat 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. The functioning of these Lok Adalat has been responsible for the disposal of more than 50 lakh cases in 2017 itself, thereby being a major modality for reduction of judicial workload. The average number of cases resolved by Lok Adalat stand at 4000 cases a day, therefore their existence is undoubtedly vital for solving the judicial backlog which exists in recent times.

A major feature of Lok Adalat to determine disputes without charging any fees has also been a strong incentive for the poor to approach the Lok Adalat 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 Adalat can be said to have passed the test for providing "access" to justice to the poor.

Role of Lok Adalat 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.

Many times, parties settle in Lok Adalat 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 Adalat have passed the test for providing access to "justice" to the poor.

Summarized Key Points related to functioning of Lok Adalat

  • About:
    1. The term 'Lok Adalat' means 'People's Court' and is based on Gandhian principles.
    2. As per the Supreme Court, it is an old form of adjudicating system prevailed in ancient India and its validity has not been taken away even in the modern days too.
    3. It is one of the components of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) system and delivers informal, cheap and expeditious justice to the common people.
    4. The first Lok Adalat camp was organised in Gujarat in 1982 as a voluntary and conciliatory agency without any statutory backing for its decisions.
    5. In view of its growing popularity over time, it was given statutory status under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. The Act makes the provisions relating to the organisation and functioning of the Lok Adalat.
       
  • Organisation:
    1. The State/District Legal Services Authority or the Supreme Court/High Court/Taluk Legal Services Committee may organise Lok Adalat at such intervals and places and for exercising such jurisdiction and for such areas as it thinks fit
    2. Every Lok Adalat organised for an area shall consist of such number of serving or retired judicial officers and other persons of the area as may be specified by the agency organizing.
    3. Generally, a Lok Adalat consists of a judicial officer as the chairman and a lawyer (advocate) and a social worker as members.
    4. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) along with other Legal Services Institutions conducts Lok Adalat.
    5. NALSA was constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 which came into force on 9th November 1995 to establish a nationwide uniform network for providing free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society.
       
  • Jurisdiction:
    1. A Lok Adalat shall have jurisdiction to determine and to arrive at a compromise or settlement between the parties to a dispute in respect of:
      1. Any case pending before any court.
      2. Any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of any court and is not brought before such court.
         
    2. Any case pending before the court can be referred to the Lok Adalat for settlement if:
      1. Parties agree to settle the dispute in the Lok Adalat or one of the parties applies for referral of the case to the Lok Adalat or court is satisfied that the matter can be solved by a Lok Adalat.
      2. In the case of a pre-litigation dispute, the matter can be referred to the Lok Adalat on receipt of an application from any one of the parties to the dispute.
         
    3. Matters such as matrimonial/family disputes, criminal (compoundable offences) cases, land acquisition cases, labour disputes, workmen's compensation cases, bank recovery cases, etc. are being taken up in Lok Adalat.
       
    4. However, the Lok Adalat shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any case or matter relating to an offence not compoundable under any law. In other words, the offences which are non-compoundable under any law fall outside the purview of the Lok Adalat.
  • Powers:
    1. The Lok Adalat shall have the same powers as are vested in a Civil Court under the Code of Civil Procedure (1908).
    2. Further, a Lok Adalat shall have the requisite powers to specify its own procedure for the determination of any dispute coming before it.
    3. All proceedings before a Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings within the meaning of the Indian Penal Code (1860) and every Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be a Civil Court for the purpose of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1973).
    4. An award of a Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be a decree of a Civil Court or an order of any other court.
    5. Every award made by a Lok Adalat shall be final and binding on all the parties to the dispute. No appeal shall lie to any court against the award of the Lok Adalat.
       
  • Benefits:
    1. There is no court fee and if court fee is already paid the amount will be refunded if the dispute is settled at Lok Adalat.
    2. There is procedural flexibility and speedy trial of the disputes. There is no strict application of procedural laws while assessing the claim by Lok Adalat.
    3. The parties to the dispute can directly interact with the judge through their counsel which is not possible in regular courts of law.
    4. The award by the Lok Adalat is binding on the parties and it has the status of a decree of a civil court and it is non-appealable, which does not cause the delay in the settlement of disputes finally.
       
  • Nature of Cases to be Referred to Lok Adalat
    1. Any case pending before any court.
    2. Any dispute which has not been brought before any court and is likely to be filed before the court.
    3. Provided that any matter relating to an offence not compoundable under the law shall not be settled in Lok Adalat.
       
  • Which Lok Adalat to be Approached
    As per section 18(1) of the Act, a Lok Adalat shall have jurisdiction to determine and to arrive at a compromise or settlement between the parties to a dispute in respect of:
    1. Any case pending before
    2. Any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of, and is not brought before, any court for which the Lok Adalat is organised.
    3. Provided that the Lok Adalat shall have no jurisdiction in respect of matters relating to divorce or matters relating to an offence not compoundable under any law.
       
  • How to Get the Case Referred to the Lok Adalat for Settlement:
    1. Case pending before the court.
    2. Any dispute at pre-litigative stage.
    The State Legal Services Authority or District Legal Services Authority as the case may be on receipt of an application from any one of the parties at a pre-litigation stage may refer such matter to the Lok Adalat for amicable settlement of the dispute for which notice would then be issued to the other party.

     
  • Levels and Composition of Lok Adalat:
    1. At the State Authority Level
      The Member Secretary of the State Legal Services Authority organizing the Lok Adalat would constitute benches of the Lok Adalat, each bench comprising of a sitting or retired judge of the High Court or a sitting or retired judicial officer and any one 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 programmes.
       
    2. At High Court Level
      The Secretary of the High Court Legal Services Committee would constitute benches of the Lok Adalat, each bench comprising of a sitting or retired judge of the High Court and any one 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 programmes.
       
    3. At District Level
      The Secretary of the District Legal Services Authority organizing the Lok Adalat would constitute benches of the Lok Adalat, each bench comprising of a sitting or retired judicial officer and any one or both of either a member from the legal profession; and/or a social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections and interested in the implementation of legal services schemes or programmes or a person engaged in para-legal activities of the area, preferably a woman.
       
    4. At Taluk Level
      The Secretary of the Taluk Legal Services Committee organizing the Lok Adalat would constitute benches of the Lok Adalat, each bench comprising of a sitting or retired judicial officer and any one or both of either a member from the legal profession; and/or a social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections and interested in the implementation of legal services schemes or programmes or a person engaged in para-legal activities of the area, preferably a woman.
       
  • National Lok Adalat
    National Level Lok Adalat are held for at regular intervals where on a single day Lok Adalat are held throughout the country, in all the courts right from the Supreme Court till the Taluk Levels wherein cases are disposed of in huge numbers. From February 2015, National Lok Adalat are being held on a specific subject matter every month.
     
  • Permanent Lok Adalat
    The other type of Lok Adalat is the Permanent Lok Adalat, organized under Section 22-B of The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. Permanent Lok Adalat have been set up as permanent bodies with a chairman and two members for providing compulsory pre-litigative mechanism for conciliation and settlement of cases relating to Public Utility Services like transport, postal, telegraph etc.

    Here, even if the parties fail to reach to a settlement, the Permanent Lok Adalat gets jurisdiction to decide the dispute, provided, the dispute does not relate to any offence. Further, the Award of the Permanent Lok Adalat is final and binding on all the parties. The jurisdiction of the Permanent Lok Adalat is up to Rs. Ten Lakhs. Here if the parties fail to reach to a settlement, the Permanent Lok Adalat has the jurisdiction to decide the case.

    The award of the Permanent Lok Adalat is final and binding upon the parties. The Lok Adalat may conduct the proceedings in such a manner as it considers appropriate, taking into account the circumstances of the case, wishes of the parties like requests to hear oral statements, speedy settlement of dispute etc.

    The Permanent Lok Adalat (PUS) is a civil court whose main purpose is to summon a person or document. Permanent Lok Adalat are set up at the State Level in India, which in principle follows the Lok Adalat at the National level. The Permanent Lok Adalat is composed of a chairperson (who is a serving or a retired District and Sessions Judge or a Judicial Officer higher in the rank) and two other persons (or members performing judicial duties). The PLA (PUS) is not bound by the Civil Procedure Code or the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
     
  • The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 was amended in 2002 to provide for the establishment of the Permanent Lok Adalat to deal with cases pertaining to the public utility services like transport, postal, telegraph etc.
     
  • Features:
    1. These have been set up as permanent bodies.
    2. It shall consist of a Chairman who is or has been a district judge or additional district judge or has held judicial office higher in rank than that of the district judge and two other persons having adequate experience in public utility services.
    3. It shall not have jurisdiction in respect of any matter relating to an offence not compoundable under any law. The jurisdiction of the Permanent Lok Adalats is upto Rs. 1 Crore.
    4. Before the dispute is brought before any court, any party to the dispute may make an application to the Permanent Lok Adalat for settlement of the dispute. After an application is made to the Permanent Lok Adalat, no party to that application shall invoke jurisdiction of any court in the same dispute.
    5. It shall formulate the terms of a possible settlement and submit them to the parties for their observations and in case the parties reach an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat shall pass an award in terms thereof. In case parties to the dispute fail to reach an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat shall decide the dispute on merits.
       
  • A major drawback of the Lok Adalat is that if the parties do not arrive at any compromise or settlement, the case is either returned to the court of law or the parties are advised to seek a remedy in a court of law. This causes unnecessary delay in the dispensation of justice.
    1. Every award made by the Permanent Lok Adalat shall be final and binding on all the parties thereto and shall be by a majority of the persons constituting the Permanent Lok Adalat.
       
  • Mobile Lok Adalat are also organized in various parts of the country which travel from one location to another to resolve disputes in order to facilitate the resolution of disputes through this mechanism.
Conclusion
Lok Adalat 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 Adalat a better redressal system towards rising litigation.

Written By: Bhaswat Prakash, Ajeenkya DY Patil University, Pune (B.A.LL. B)

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