Dinesh Singh Chauhan
In every system of government, the effective Justice Delivery Mechanism is a permanent and necessary condition of peace, order, civilization and governance of the country. Just as pollution poisons the physical atmosphere, the poor Justice Delivery System poisons the social atmosphere. The Constitution of India as a form of social document is a significant symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the people. It is intended by the makers of the Constitution that the largees of law must belong to all, not, as now, to those who use the Constitution for unconstitutional ends.
After Independence, the Indian society has become more complex and impersonal and raised the problems of people in different walks of life. But, with the passage of time, Justice Delivery System has really grown more and more complex both in terms of substance and procedure and the administration is inadequate to meet the needs of the time with the result that the grievances like, access, delay, arrears, expenses are only the tips of the iceberg. The problem of unmanaged backlog of cases, mounting arrears and inordinate delay in disposal of cases in Courts at all levels lowest to the highest coupled with exorbitant expenses have undoubtedly attracted the attention of not only the lawyers, litigants, social activists, legal academics, legislature, Judiciary but also everyone concerned with Judicial reforms. As, it is a known fact that the Indian Courts are over burdened with the backlog of cases and the regular Courts are to decide the cases which involve a lengthy, expensive and tedious procedure. In such situation, the emergence of Lok Adalat is a ray of hope for needy of Justice.
Origin of Lok Adalats
The concept of Lok Adalat goes back to the pre-independence or the British period. It served as an effective system amongst the litigants. India has a long tradition of resolving disputes through conciliatory efforts outside of the Formal Legal System. Accordingly, Lok Adalats evolved from and were influenced by Village Based Courts called Nyaya Panchayats. From ancient times to the twentieth century, NPs resolved disputes through informal tribunals headed by Village Elders. This was advantageous because the elders intimately knew the disputants, the issues, and the traditions of the village. A Ruling by an elder was considered well-informed and highly respected based on the elder’s position within the community. In village life, informal resolutions like conciliation were emphasized.
Popularity and use of the NPs declined as the British System of Justice was established beginning in the mid-1800s. However, after India’s independence in 1947, members of the Ruling Party, the Indian National Congress, sought to replace the formal British Adversarial System with a structure that promoted harmony and reconciliation. They wanted Formal Courts replaced by the traditional NPs, which had been providing Justice for hundreds of years.
The early history of Lok Adalats can be defined by the struggle to provide legal aid in India. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India N. H. Bhagwati led the first formal and comprehensive inquiry into this dilemma. In 1949, Bhagwati’s Committee on Legal Aid & Legal Advice concluded that legal aid was a “governmental responsibility” and that equal protection of the laws placed a duty on the Government to provide free legal aid as per Article 14 of the Constitution of India. In the three decades after the Report’s Release, many more Committees and Official Government Reports studied the need for legal aid.
The State of Gujarat was the first major State to acknowledge and establish legal aid because it commissioned the Bhagwati Report of 1976, written by a group of jurists including former Supreme Court Justice Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati. Upendra Baxi, a prominent Indian Legal Scholar & Researcher, was one player in promoting Lok Adalats. He documented a Guru’s 50 private experiment with Informal Dispute Resolution in the Northern Indian Village of Rangpur. The founder of the Ashram, Harivallabh Parikh, heard mainly intra-village disputes where he and representatives of the disputants rendered a decision subject to the approval of the Local Assembly. News of the success of the ashram in Rangpur spread quickly and was a model for the first State-backed Lok Adalat experiment, which took place in Gujarat. In response to the influence of the Bhagwati Report & Upendra Baxi’s study of the ashram in Rangpur, both of which had been released in the same year and about the same State in India, Gujarat began holding Lok Adalats in conjunction with legal aid conferences. As news of the success of Gujarat Lok Adalats spread, other States began following its example. Between 1986 & 1988, Lok Adalats were highly promoted by politicians, Government Officials, and the Judiciary. Lok Adalats were created with greater frequency and hundreds of thousands of cases were settled.
During this period, Lok Adalats were conducted in an informal manner as compared to the Formal Court System. Lok Adalats could hear any type of case because there were no jurisdictional limitations. They addressed, inter alia, civil matters, minor criminal cases, and motor vehicle accident cases. Disputes were resolved with speed and ease.
Legitimization and Modern Times
The Government passed the National Legal Services Authorities Act in 1987. The Act affected Lok Adalats in three important ways.
First, it conferred statutory authority to Lok Adalats. It allowed the States to organize Lok Adalats as they saw fit. It also gave Lok Adalats the jurisdiction to:
[D]etermine and to arrive at a compromise or settlement between the parties to a dispute in the respect of (i) any pending case; or (ii) any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of, and is not brought before, any court for which the Lok Adalat is organized.
Second, it permitted pending cases in the Formal Courts to be transferred to Lok Adalats by direct application of one or both parties. If conciliation was not achieved, then the case could move back to the formal Court from which it came.
Third, the Act made awards given out by Lok Adalats enforceable. Any awards issued were considered equivalent to decrees of a Civil Court. Also significant was that the award issued was binding on both the parties and could not be appealed.
In 1999, the Government of India further legitimized Lok Adalats by adding Section 89 to the Civil Procedure Code of India. Section 89 allows a Court, when it appears that there is the possibility of a settlement, to formulate the terms and submit them to the parties for their comments. Most importantly, on receiving a response from the parties, the Court may formulate a settlement and refer the case to ADR, including Lok Adalats.
In 2002, there was an amendment to the Legal Services Authority Act that established permanent Lok Adalats for specific types of disputes. For example, Lok Adalats were set up to resolve disputes concerning Public Utilities Services. This is an important transition because, previously, if two parties could not come to a resolution they would go back into the Formal Justice System. This was seen as a delay in the dispensation of Justice and was used to that end by many lawyers. However, with permanent Lok Adalats, Judges have the authority to make decisions based on the merits, as well as to compel conciliation.
The quest for equal, fair and even handed Justice has been the passionate demand of human being from the emergence of the society in all civilisations. Therefore, the right of effective access to Justice has developed as the most basic human rights of a legal system which purports to guarantee the legal, social, political, cultural and economic rights in a country. The introduction of Lok Adalats added a new chapter to the Justice Dispensation System of this country and succeeded in providing a supplementary forum to the litigants or disputants for satisfactory settlement of their disputes. The meaning of the term ‘Lok Adalat’ literally is ‘People’s Court’ because the term comprises two words namely ‘Lok’ and ‘Adalat’, Lok stands for the people and Adalat means the Court. So, it is meant people’s Court. The former word of the term expressing the concept of public opinion while the latter devoting the accurate and thorough deliberation aspect of decision making. The Lok Adalat System has the opportunity to live up to the goals of providing the public with an effective and informal Dispute Resolution Mechanism as it had originally set out to accomplish. It can simultaneously relieve the burdens of the Formal Legal System and bring informal legal remedies to those that do not believe strongly in the Justice Delivery System.
(The author is Advocate in High Court of Judicature, J&K & Ladakh, Jammu)
Dinesh Singh Chauhan