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Origin And Evolution Of Lok Adalat System In India

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. Equal and fair Justice is the hallmark of any civilized society.

It is the primary duty of State to ensure equal and even handed Justice for all by regulating the dealings of citizens with one another, by checking disorder and high handedness of one class of people over others and by maintaining all those rights which are fundamental to the existence and upliftment of common man through establishing the effective administration of Justice.

Administration of Justice means to adjudicate the rights and duties of the individuals on the basis of rules laid down by the State. It makes efforts to provide the right to access to Justice to all because access to Justice from an independent and impartial agency in public law as well as private law is a recognized human right.

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. They were quite hopeful that the poor and the needy must not be at the victims end but at the consumers end.

Their aim was to wipe every tear from every eye and it is expected that the law must go to eye and not compel the weaper to reach the urban-based lawyer and judge. In order to achieve this holy goal, the framers of the Constitution of India prescribed the mandate for social, economic and political justice, in its Preamble.

After Independence, the Indian society has become more complex and impersonal and raised the problems of people in different walks of life. But, by 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. The sole governing consideration, therefore, how to reduce the delay in disposal of cases, make the system resilient by removing its stratification, making the system less formal and truly inexpensive so as to bring justice within the reach of the poor.

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 involve a lengthy, expensive and tedious procedure. In such situation, the emergence of Lok Adalat is a ray of hope for needy of Justice. The institution of Lok Adalat has multifarious advantages and people also have faith upon it as an apparatus for social change. It bears the signature of social Justice.

To get out this labyrinth of litigation, Lok Adalats, therefore, devise for imparting expeditious and inexpensive Justice as an Alternative Dispute Resolution Forum. Now, the Lok Adalat system has got the statutory recognition under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (for brevity the Act). The object of the Act is to provide free and competent legal system to the weaker section of society to ensure that the opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic and other disabilities, and to organise Lok Adalats to secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice on basis of equal opportunity.

The preamble of the said Act emphasize that the Lok Adalats should be constituted to provide economical and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society to perform Constitutional obligation on behalf of the State.

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. This was one of the most suitable methods for the Indian environment, culture and social interest.
  1. Nyaya Panchayats
    India has a long tradition of resolving disputes through conciliation 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, Nyaya Panchayats 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 Nyaya Panchayats 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 Nyaya Panchayats, which had been providing Justice for hundreds of years.

Despite this support, Lawyers, Judges, and notably the Chair of the Constitution's Drafting Committee strongly opposed institutionalizing Informal Court Systems. Consequently, although Nyaya Panchayats were included in the new Constitution, they were not given much power and quickly became defunct.

Nyaya Panchayats, as envisioned by the new Constitution, differed from their older and more traditional predecessors. This new iteration of Nyaya Panchayats brought unwanted formalism to the system, such as requiring that certain cases be heard only in the Nyaya Panchayats, whereas, before people had the option of going to the Formal Court System. During this time, the Nyaya Panchayats quickly receded in use and popularity. Caseloads of the Nyaya Panchayats declined steadily while those of the Formal Courts continued to rise.

As legal scholars Marc Galanter & Jayanth Krishnan explain:
"[I]n little more than a decade, nyaya panchayats were moribund... They represented an unappetizing combination of the formality of official law with the political malleability of village tribunals." Although the Nyaya Panchayats did not follow any Formal Procedural Rules, participants still perceived them as a formal system due to their explicit recognition in the Constitution of India.

Despite their lack of success, legal intellectuals still perceived the Nyaya Panchayats as being rich with powerful historical and cultural traditions. The idea of an Informal Court System was especially attractive to academics because of their interest in providing widespread access to the Justice system, but their focus shifted from promoting an Informal Court System based on Village traditions and spirituality, to promoting established law based on written legal authority.

Early History of Lok Adalats
The early history of Lok Adalats can be defined by the struggle to provide legal aid in India. This movement was spurred by the concerns of legal scholars and the Judiciary who believed that the general population would not have adequate legal representation without access to free legal services.
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 Bhagwati Report of 1976 (Officially titled The Report on National Juridicare) was the one of the most important instances in which a group of individuals envisioned a Court System in the image of Lok Adalats. 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.

The Bhagwati Report argued that poverty was intimately related to the lack of legal assistance and access to Courts. One way to improve socio-economic conditions through the law, the Report argued, was through public-interest litigation that promoted certain rights. Advocates of using public-interest litigation in this way argue that the legal system should be a mechanism for providing social Justice. Advocates also argue that the Judiciary should play an active role in expanding the legal system.

After the Bhagwati Committee Report, the Government of India commissioned a report on legal services. This Report was the first to explicitly mention Conciliation & Informal Dispute Resolution as a factor in a National Legal Aid Scheme. The Report even invoked NPs as a way to provide Dispute Resolution & Promote Conciliation. 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.

At this point, Lok Adalats were at the height of their popularity and effectiveness as evidenced by this description in laid down in Shiraz Sidhva, Lok Adalats: Quick, Informal Nyaya, LEX ET JURIS, Dec. 1986, at 38, 40�41:
When a particular matter is called up for hearing, either the petitioner or the lawyer representing him can explain his problem. The case is discussed informally, and the mediators can intervene at any point in the proceedings, as can the opposite party. Issues are clarified, and it is aimed to arrive at a fair settlement. . . . [The judge's] task is merely to clarify the law, and by methods of persuasion, make each party realise how he stands to benefit from a particular settlement arrived at. . . . On some occasions, the compensation amount is made available to the parties on the same day, thereby making the lok adalats popular.

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:
  1. any pending case; or
  2. 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.

Despite the demand for legislation on Lok Adalats, however, there was strong opposition to the Legal Services Act. Critics of the Legal Services Act thought it defeated the informal and grassroots nature of Lok Adalats, which resulted from the popular desire to settle disputes through conciliation. Former Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer, a prominent Indian Jurist who was instrumental in the Lok Adalat movement, was disappointed with the Act's insistence that Judicial Officers and lawyers have ultimate responsibility for Lok Adalat Courts, and that decisions in those Courts be made according to common law principles.

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 specifically affects Lok Adalats. This amendment 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.

Modern Lok Adalats can be traced back to the advent of Nyaya Panchayats in ancient India. However, as the Justice system and the country have evolved, Lok Adalats have become a very different mechanism of Justice than the original Nyaya Panchayats.

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 term access to Justice connotes the ability of a person to participate in the Judicial process for the protection and enforcement of his rights. It covers more than bare Court entry and includes the ability to reach the lawyers, police, enforcement machinery and capacity to bear the costs and time of litigation. In this backdrop, the right to access to Justice through efficacious Justice Delivery Mechanism, is imperative to secure Justice under the Constitution.

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. It is a major aspect of legal aid programme because it intends to provide equal protection of law and equal access to Justice to all people, particularly the poor who lack means to knock at the door of Justice.

The meaning of the term 'Lok Adalat' in 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 is an institution settles dispute by adopting the principles of Justice, equity and fair play. These noble principles are guiding factors for decisions of the Lok Adalats based on compromises to be arrived at before such Adalats. The Lok Adalat is a voluntary mechanism which is mainly concerned with two-fold functions � firstly, it provides a quick, easy, accessible, non-technical, sympathetic and disputant friendly forum to the people for resolution of their disputes and secondly, it helps overcome the hazard of the docket explosion.

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 system.

To achieve these objectives, Lok Adalats should take lessons from Alternative Dispute Resolution experiments abroad, along with lessons from Indian experiments, and adapt them to the culture and traditions of the rural Indian population.

Written By: Dinesh Singh Chauhan, Advocate, High Court of Judicature, J&K & Ladakh, Jammu
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

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