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RECOGNITION OF LOK ADALATS IN INDIA
Author: Deepasha Rath, V year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from KIIT School of Law
The notion of Lok Adalat, which means people's court and is based on Gandhian principles, is a revolutionary addition by India to world jurisprudence. This system of justice dispensation was successful in offering a secondary forum for victims to address their problems satisfyingly. Lok adalats have a long history in Indian law, with a strong connection to the culture and perception of justice in Indian ethos, culture, and societal interests. Lok Adalat camps were first established in Gujarat in March 1982, and have since spread across the country. The evolution of this movement was a part of the strategy to relieve the heavy burden on the Courts with pending cases and to give relief to the litigants.
Lok Adalats are one of the alternative dispute resolution procedures, mostly in the form of a forum where disagreements or cases that are pending in court or at the pre-litigation stage can be settled or compromised peacefully. Lok Adalats are held by the National Legal Service Authority and other legal services agencies such as the State Legal Service Authority. The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, gave Lok Adalats legislative authority in response to the constitutional mandate under Article 39-A of the Indian Constitution. The award or decision of the Lok Adalats is deemed to be a civil court decree and is final and binding on all parties under the said Act, and no appeal against such an award lies before any court of law. Even though there is no mechanism for an appeal against such an award, they are free to commence litigation by approaching the court of the relevant jurisdiction and filing a complaint according to the prescribed procedure, to exercise their right to litigate.
When a matter is filed in a Lok Adalat, there is no requirement of a court fee to be paid. The court money originally paid in the court on the complaints/petition is also given back to the parties if a matter sitting in the court of law is referred to the Lok Adalat and is concluded later. Members of the Lok Adalats are the people who make decisions in the Lok Adalats. They merely serve as statutory conciliators and have no judicial authority. Therefore, they can only persuade the parties to conclude settling the dispute outside the court in the Lok Adalat and shall not pressurize or coerce any of the parties to compromise or settle cases or matters either directly or indirectly. The parties are not allowed to be represented by the lawyers and encouraged to interact with the judge who helps in arriving at an amicable settlement. The Lok Adalat does not decide the matter so referred at its instance, instead the same would be decided based on the compromise or settlement between the parties. The members shall assist the parties independently and impartially in their attempt to reach an amicable settlement of their dispute.
Any case pending before any court or any dispute which has not been brought before any court and is likely to be filed before the court can be referred to the Lok Adalat. However, any matter relating to an offence that is not compoundable under the law shall not be settled in Lok Adalat. 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 any case pending before, or any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of and is not brought before, any court for which the Lok Adalat is organised. Lok Adalat shall have no jurisdiction in respect of matters relating to divorce or matters relating to an offence not compoundable under any law.
Cases being referred to the Lok Adalat for Settlement are either cases pending before the court or any dispute at the pre-litigation 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. A notice would then be issued to the other party. The Lok Adalat shall have the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, while trying a suit, in respect of the power to summon and enforce the attendance of any witness and to examine him/her on oath, power to enforce the discovery and production of any document, power to receive evidence on affidavits, power for requisitioning of any public record or document or copy thereof or from any court, and such other matters as may be prescribed. Every Lok Adalat shall have the power to specify its procedure for the determination of any dispute coming before it. All proceedings before a Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings within the meaning of Sections 193, 219 and 228 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Every Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be a Civil Court for Sec 195 and Chapter XXVI of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.
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 anyone or both shall be a member from the legal profession or a social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections and interested in the implementation of legal services schemes or programmes. At the 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 anyone or both shall be a member from the legal profession or a social worker engaged in the upliftment of the weaker sections and interested in the implementation of legal services schemes or programmes. 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. 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 paralegal activities of the area, preferably a woman.
National Level Lok Adalats are held at regular intervals where on a single day Lok Adalats are held throughout the country, in all the courts right from the Supreme Court till the Taluk Levels wherein cases are disposed off in huge numbers. From February 2015, National Lok Adalats are being held on a specific subject matter every month.
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 Adalats have been set up as permanent bodies with a Chairman and two members for providing a compulsory pre-litigation mechanism for conciliation and settlement of cases relating to Public Utility Services like transport, postal, telegraph etc. Here, even if the parties fail to settle, 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 Adalats is up to Rs. ten lakhs. Here if the parties fail to settle, 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. Mobile Lok Adalats are also organized in various parts of the country which travel from one location to another to resolve disputes to facilitate the resolution of disputes through this mechanism.
The Indian Courts have been facing the problem of pendency of cases since time immemorial. The statistics from the National Judicial Data Grid state that 3,59,08,679 cases are pending across all courts in India out of which 28% of the total pending cases are civil. To deal with this judicial backlog, either the process and structures of adjudication can be streamlined or new out of court ways of dispute settlement should be adopted that are fair, just and for the best interest of the parties. Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms like arbitration, conciliation, mediation and Lok Adalats come to play in such cases and play an important role in reducing the number of cases that are filed in courts by providing redressal. Given the huge pendency in Indian courts, and more importantly, the suitability of ADR mechanisms to resolve certain categories of disputes, they should be treated at par with the public court system. In fact, in some categories, they should be the primary choice of dispute resolution.