In the previous articles, we discussed the Subordinate Courts of India and the National Legal Services Authority of India which constitute the bedrock of judiciary in India and ensures justice for all by enhancing the accessibility of courts for the people, especially those in rural areas, and providing for free legal aid, which is a fundamental right of the citizens of India. Continuing the topic on subordinate courts in India, in this article, we’d be discussing the Lok Adalats in India. The Lok Adalats in India also constitutes an integral part of the Indian Judiciary which serves, broadly speaking, as an alternative mode of dispute settlement.
What is a Lok Adalat?
Firstly, the word ‘Lok Adalat’ means ‘People’s court.’ The Lok Adalat works as an alternative dispute resolution system, which is based on Gandhian Principles. It’s a forum where disputes or cases, that are pending in a court or the cases which are not yet brought before a court (which are in a pre-litigation stage) are compromised and settled.
This system of Lok Adalats isn’t a new phenomenon, rather, this system prevailed in ancient India and its validity has not been taken away even in the modern days too.
The need for Lok Adalats
As we all know that the courts in India are highly overburdened with cases, which is seriously threatening the idea of ‘justice for all’, as the courts in India are taking a fairly long time to settle even petty cases, leave alone the serious ones. And this is mainly due to the huge backlog of cases pending in courts. The regular courts are to decide the cases involving a lengthy, expansive and tedious procedure.
Hence, the Lok Adalats has been established as an alternative mode of dispute resolution to unburden the courts in India, which provides for a viable, efficient, economic, and informal mode of dispute resolution. They also ensure expeditious and inexpensive justice.
So, the Lok Adalats in India functions as another alternative in judicial justice, delivering informal, expeditious, and cheap justice to the common man by the way of settling disputes which are pending in courts and also those, which have not yet reached courts by negotiation, conciliation and by adapting persuasive, common sense and human approach to the problems of the disputants, with the assistance of specially trained and experienced members of a team of conciliators.
First Lok Adalat in India
The first Lok Adalat camp in the post-independence era was organized in Gujarat in 1982. And this camp of Lok Adalat was successful in the settlement of disputes. And as this initiative proved to be successful, the idea of Lok Adalats spread to different parts of the country.
However, there was a drawback in the prevalent system, as these Lok Adalats were functioning without any statutory backing for their decisions. Hence, they were functioning as voluntary and conciliatory institutions. This was a serious drawback that greatly affected their credibility, even if their awards and decisions are right and given with the best of intentions. So, the demand for giving statutory status to the institution of the Lok Adalat rose, which was accepted by the government. Finally, a statutory status was granted to the Lok Adalat by the Legal Services Authority Act of 1987.
Legal Services Authority Act of 1987
The Legal Services Authority Act of 1987 made the following provisions for giving statutory status to the institution of Lok Adalat-
- The State Legal Services Authority or the District Legal Services Authority or the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee or the High Court Legal Services Committee or the Taluk Legal Services Committee may organize Lok Adalats at such intervals and places for exercising such jurisdiction and for such areas as it thinks fit.
- Every Lok Adalat organized for an area shall consist of such numbers of serving or retired judicial officers and other persons of the area as may be specified by the agency organizing such Lok Adalat. Generally, a Lok Adalat consists of a judicial officer as the chairman and a lawyer, and a social worker as members.
- A Lok Adalat shall have jurisdiction to determine and to arrive at a compromise and settlement between the parties to a dispute in respect of:
- any case pending before any court or
- any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of any court and is not brought before such court.
- Any case pending before the court can be referred to the Lok Adalat for settlement if:
- the parties thereof agree to settle the dispute in the Lok Adalat or,
- the court is satisfied that the matter is an appropriate one and to be taken cognizance of by the Lok Adalat
- The Lok Adalat shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 while trying to suit in respect of the following matters:
- the summoning and enforcing the attendance of any witness examining him on oath;
- the reception of evidence on affidavits;
- the discovery and production of any document;
- the requisitioning of any public record or document from any court or office; and
- such other matters as may be prescribed.
- An award of a Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be a decree of a Civil Court or an order of any other court. 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.
So, as stated earlier, the Legal Services Authority Act of 1987 provides that the Lok Adalats could deal with cases that are pending before any court and the disputes that are in a pre-litigation stage.
The different matters such as family and matrimonial disputes, Labor disputes, bank recovery cases, land acquisition cases, housing finance cases, consumer grievance cases, pension cases, municipal matters such as house tax cases, etc can be taken up by a Lok Adalat.
The agency organizing the Lok Adalat can refer a case, which is at a pre-litigation stage, to the Lok Adalat for settlement, or the Lok Adalat undertakes a case at a pre-litigation stage on receipt of an application from any one of the parties to the dispute.
The Benefits of Lok Adalats
The first and foremost benefit of the Lok Adalat is that it enhances our right to free legal aid, as there’s no court fee needed, and even if any fee is paid, it shall be returned if the dispute is settled.
In the institution of Lok Adalat, unlike any other courts of law, the parties can directly interact with the judge of the Lok Adalat through their counsel.
Other important features of the Lok Adalat are its procedural flexibility and speedy trial of disputes. This speedy trial and flexibility are because there is no strict application of procedural laws such as the Civil Procedure Code and the Evidence Act while assessing the claim by Lok Adalat.
Finally, as the award by the Lok Adalats is binding on the parties, is non-appealable, and has the status of a decree of a civil court, it prevents delay in settlement of disputes.
In a Lok Adalat, the conflicting parties are free to discuss their differences in opinion without any fear of disclosure before any law courts.
Permanent Lok Adalats
The institution of the Permanent Lok Adalat was established after amending the Legal Services Authority Act of 1987 in 2002. This amendment led to the establishment of Permanent Lok Adalats for dealing with cases pertaining to public utility services.
The need for Permanent Lok Adalats
As stated earlier, the institution of Lok Adalats has been very successful as a mechanism of alternative dispute resolution, provided for cost-efficient, effective, and at the same time speedy resolution of disputes in a spirit of conciliation outside the courts.
But however, there was a serious drawback in this innovative and efficient mechanism of dispute resolution. The drawback is that the system of Lok Adalats is based on settlement or compromise between the parties. This often leads to unnecessary delays, as if the dispute remains unsettled, the case is returned to the court, or the parties are asked to seek remedy from the court of law. So, there was a need to further empower the Lok Adalats to decide the cases on merit, if the parties aren’t able to achieve a settlement or compromise.
The cases relating to the public utility services, for example relating to the Delhi Vidyut Board, should be settled as early as possible, even at the pre-litigation stage. This would lead to the speedy disposal of cases and provide justice to the people. Moreover, this will also unburden the courts which are already overburdened with the huge logjam of cases, as most of the petty cases could now be settled at the pre-litigation stage
Features of the Permanent Lok Adalat
The jurisdiction of the Permanent Lok Adalat extends to matters relating to public utility services such as postal, telegraph, or telephone services; transport service of passengers or goods by air, road, and water; public conservancy or sanitation; services in hospitals or dispensaries; supply of power, light or water to the public by any establishment; insurance services, etc.
The pecuniary jurisdiction shall be up to 10 lakhs. However, the Central Government of India has the authority to increase the pecuniary jurisdiction from time to time.
The Permanent Lok Adalat consists 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. In addition to this, the institution also consists of two other persons having adequate experience in public utility services.
Other important features
In case parties to the dispute fail to reach an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat should decide the case on merits.
Before any dispute is taken to any court of law, any of the parties can make an application to the Permanent Lok Adalat, and no party to that application shall invoke jurisdiction of any court in the same dispute.
Every award made by the Permanent Lok Adalat shall be binding on all the parties. And every award shall be given by a majority of the persons constituting the Permanent Lok Adalat.
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