A couple of months back, a daily wager in Odisha sued the Prime Minister of India in a Lok Adalat. He stated that he had applied for an Adhaar card and failed in as many as 21 attempts to get one. Reasoning that the Prime Minister “is responsible for the implementation of Aadhaar”, he decided to lodge a case at the permanent Lok Adalat in Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal district from where he hails. Leaving aside the specifics of the case, the fact that someone so underprivileged had access to judicial resources in a time and at a place of his convenience owing to the existence of Lok Adalats is something truly praiseworthy. But what are these courts, if they can be termed so at all and what gaps exist to fulfil queries within our justice delivery system?
Institutions of Justice Delivery
Lok Adalats (the term literally translates into “people’s Courts) were first set up in Gujarat. Starting from the first-ever Lok Adalat organised in Junagadh on the 14th of March, 1982, to today where a large number of them exist across the country, we have indeed come a long way. Soon after Gujarat, Maharashtra commenced what was called Lok Nyayalayas in 1984, just two years later.
As the term suggests, these are institutions of justice delivery which are meant to be more approachable, accessible, faster and more relevant for the common masses, especially those in our vast, sometimes remote, rural hinterlands.
They function as of the Alternate Dispute Redressal (ADR) mechanisms. Lok Adalats also cover for another existing lacunae in India’s justice delivery system – the need for free legal aid to those who are underprivileged and may be denied justice simply owing to a lack of resources.
This is the reason why there is no fee charged at all for cases brought before these courts. In fact, if a case is transferred from another court to a Lok Adalat, then the fees paid during the time of admission of the case in the court concerned is also refunded to the parties concerned.
The Union Government had introduced the (now famous) article 39(A) in the Constitution in February 1977, with an aim of providing for equal justice and free legal aid to all those in need.
The article makes use of the word “shall” in its wording of the directive, hence implying the mandatory nature of the statute. Finally, Lok Adalats came about and have continued to see wide scale adoption in the last nearly four decades because they also aim to tackle the overbearing pendency of cases in courts across India. More importantly, also solve disputes at the pre-litigation stage itself.
Later, these Adalats were also granted statutory status under the 1987 Legal Services Authority Act. What that did is ensure that decisions awarded by these institutions carried equivalence with that of a civil court, and that it is made binding on both the sides.
Moreover, no appeal can be made in a court of law against a decision made by the Adalat. Of course, the parties are free to approach a court with the appropriate jurisdiction and further initiate litigation as they may deem fit.
Usually, retired or serving judges as well as judicial officers are appointed to the benches at Lok Adalats. Sometimes, other eminent personalities are appointed as well, mostly depending on the discretion of the respective state, high court, taluk as well as district legal services committee secretary.
One aspect to keep in mind though is that those deciding cases and awarding decisions in Lok Adalats perform a statutory conciliator’s role, instead of that of a judge.
What this implies is that they can only try and persuade both the sides to arrive at a compromise or reach a conclusion with no coercion involved towards arriving at a final settlement. The idea is to end the dispute amicably at the pre litigation stage itself, sparing the courts of additional burden while simultaneously making justice faster and affordable for the litigating parties as well.
There are three more types of Lok Adalats:
- National Lok Adalats – These are those Lok Adalats which are simultaneously organised across all of India, on a single day and at regular intervals. These involve organising the Adalats at all levels, right from the Supreme Court down to the Taluks and other local courts. The aim remains to dispose off a large number of cases within a day or so. In fact, national Lok Adalats have been held on specific subject matters every month starting February 2015. On February 10th, 2018, Lok Adalats were set up across India and they cleared a record 12 lakh cases within a day.
- Permanent Lok Adalats – These are those Lok Adalats which are set up under section 22-B of the 1987 Legal Services Authorities Act. Instead of the usual Lok Adalats which are set up periodically at all levels of justice administration, these are more structured, permanent bodies which function as full-time Alternate Dispute Redressal forums.
These institutions have a Chairperson as well as two other members and they are tasked with providing for compulsory pre-legislative conciliation as well as settlement mechanisms.
They deal mostly with Public Utility Services like the postal, transport and so on. What is different about these bodies though is the fact that even if the litigating parties fail to reach a consensus by means of mediation, permanent Lok Adalats have the jurisdiction to decide upon the case provided that the dispute doesn’t relate to any legal offence and the amount of money involved is up to a ceiling of Rs. 10 lakhs only.
- Mobile Lok Adalats – These are Lok Adalats on wheels, in a sense. They are set up across the country and they are tasked with travelling across different locations with an aim of resolving disputes as well as making justice as accessible and approachable for the citizens as possible.
Performance of Lok Adalats
In a reply to a question on the functioning of Lok Adalats in March of this year, this is what the Minister of Law and Justice had to say in the Lok Sabha:
“During last three years, Regular Lok Adalats have settled 20,00,437 cases and National Lok Adalats have settled 81,55,052 cases pending in High Courts and Lower Courts. 337 Permanent Lok Adalats are functioning in various States & UTs.“
Data on state-wise functioning of permanent Lok Adalats:
Source: Ministry of Law and Justice
This is the data on the number of cases settled in regular Lok Adalats in the last three years, state-wise –
Source: Ministry of Law and Justice
Data on the number of cases settled in National Lok Adalats in the last three years, state-wise:
Source: Ministry of Law and Justice
At a broader level, these Adalats have had a positive contribution on the administration of justice delivery in India. They’ve made it possible and practical for the most underprivileged of Indians to approach courts and access instruments of justice.
Given the large (and growing) burden of pendency and the prevalence of illiteracy, especially among those who benefit the most from such low-barrier arrangements, Lok Adalats have indeed played an important role in advancing the constitutional principles of “equal access to justice” for all in the country. A praiseworthy initiative indeed.
This article was originally published in The Leaflet on December 5, 2020.
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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.