'Lok Adalats'-The Peoples' Courts in India

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According to Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia- Lok Adalat is a system of alternative dispute resolution developed in India. It roughly means “People’s court”. India has had a long history of resolving disputes through the mediation of village elders. The system of Lok Adalats is an improvement and is based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi. Lok Adalat is a non-adversarial system, whereby mock courts (called Lok Adalats) are held by the State Authority, District Authority, Supreme Court Legal Services Committee, High Court Legal Services Committee, or Taluk Legal Services Committee. They are held periodically for exercising such jurisdiction as they determine. These are usually presided over by retired judges, social activists, or other members of the legal profession. The Lok Adalats can deal with all Civil Cases, Matrimonial Disputes, Land Disputes, Partition/Property Disputes, Labour Disputes etc., and compoundable criminal Cases

Lok Adalats  have been set up in various States of India and have a statutory backing under Legal Services Authorities Act 1987.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of setting up of Lok Adalats have been stated under Section 21  and  has been discussed as under-

“The institution of Lok Adalats is atpresent functioning as a voluntary and conciliatory agencywithout any statutory backing for its decisions. It has proved tobe very popular in providing for a speedier system ofAdministration of Justice. In view of its growing popularity,there has been a demand for providing a statutory backing tothis institution and the awards given by Lok Adalats. It is feltthat such a statutory support would not only reduce the burdenof arrears of work in regular courts, but would also take justiceto the doorsteps of the poor and the needy and make justice quicker and less expensive.”

Similarly, second part of the object of the Act as stated in its preamble is to organize Lok Adalats with a view to ensure that the operation of the legal system in the country promotes justice among citizens on a basis of equal opportunity. This portion of preamble of the Act is more broader in its width and sweep aims at securing successful operation of the legal system towards effective furtherance and promotion of justice among the litigant public. It is needless to state that quicker and inexpensive justice to the disputant parties is an essential feature of any legal system to effectively promote justice, of course, on a basis of equal opportunity. As far as work load pending in all regular Courts of our country is concerned, it is an universally acknowledged fact that the Courts are saddled with heavy and unwieldy burden of arrears of judicial work and it has reached the point of alarming proportion. It is in this backdrop of the disturbing situation of the ever mounting pendency of the work load in regular Courts, and the benefits ofthe Lok Adalat the Parliament has legislated the Act to provide alternative fora in the form of Lok Adalats for decision and disposal of the cases by functioning within the schemes framed under the Act, so that the arrears of work in regular Courts be reduced to considerable extent, and quick and inexpensive or less expensive justice be made available to the needy parties and litigants. If the limitations, prescribed by Section 12 and Rule 11 of the Rules of 1996 for a person’s right to seek legal services under the Act are to be read as operating on and controlling the exercise of the power of trial court in referring any suitable pending case to a Lok Adalat for settlement, this laudable object of the Act would get defeated, and such an interpretation of any statutory provision would be impermissible and unwarranted.35 Therefore, it means that LokAdalat has wide power to take cognizance of the case or matter of any party irrespective of his caste, religion, sex, race, wealth and income.

It is useful  to refer the judgment of the Supreme  Court in State of Punjab & Anr. vs. Jalour Singh and Ors. (2008) 2 SCC 660. The ratio that decision was that the “award” of the Lok Adalat does not mean any independent verdict or opinion arrived at by any decision making process. The making of the award is merely an administrative act of incorporating the terms of settlement or compromise agreed by the parties in the presence of the Lok Adalat, in the form of an executable order under the signature and seal of the Lok Adalat. This judgment was followed in B.P. Moideen Sevamandir and Anr. vs. A.M. Kutty Hassan (2009) 2 SCC 198.

16. In P.T. Thomas vs. Thomas Job, (2005) 6 SCC 478, Lok Adalat, its benefits, Award and its finality has been extensively discussed.

17. From the above discussion, the following propositions emerge: 

1. In view of the unambiguous language of Section 21 of the Act, every award of the Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be a decree of a civil court and as such it is executable by that Court. 2. The Act does not make out any such distinction between the reference made by a civil court and criminal court.

3. There is no restriction on the power of the Lok Adalat to pass an award based on the compromise arrived at between the parties in respect of cases referred to by various Courts (both civil and criminal), Tribunals, Family court, Rent Control Court, Consumer Redressal Forum, Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal and other Forums of similar nature. 

4. Even if a matter is referred by a criminal court under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 and by virtue of the deeming provisions, the award passed by the Lok Adalat based on a compromise has to be treated as a decree capable of execution by a civil court.

  For some time now, Lok Adalats are being constituted at various places in the country for the disposal in a summary

( Commissioner, Karnataka State Public Instruction (Education),

Banfalore v. Nurupadi Veerabhadrappa Siva Simpi, AIR 2001 Kant 504

at 508.34. AIR 2001 Kant 412.218)way and through the process of arbitration and settlementbetween the parties, of a large number of cases expeditiously-and with lesser costs.The High Court of Allahabad recently discussed in detailthe scope of judicial review of the award of Lok Adalat in thecase of Shashi Prateek Singh v Charan Singh Verma, and held thatalthough the provisions of the Act are intended to make awardof Lok Adalat arrived at on the basis of compromise orsettlement between parties to dispute as final and remedies ofappeal, review and revision against the award of Lok Adalat arenot available under law but being a tribunal of special nature,the remedy to recall the order/award passed by Lok Adalat onthe ground of fraud or misrepresentation or mistake of fact cannot be held to be barred under law, as power to recall its order on the aforesaid grounds is inherent in every court or tribunal or statutory functionary. Similarly, the awards made by the LokAdalat organized or established under the Act cannot be held tobe immune from judicial review as High Court under Article 227has ample power of superintendence over decisions of all the courts or tribunals throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, therefore, orders passed or awards made by Lok Adalats organized and established under the Act within territorial limits of High Court, are subject to judicial review on grounds available under Article 226/227 of the Constitution of India, otherwise person aggrieved would be left remediless. Therefore, on the basis of these judgments, it is found that Lok Adalats come under the domain of writ jurisdiction basically when the award has been passed against statutory provisions and principles of natural Justice\Lok Adalat has been working as a method of alternate dispute resolution mechanism since 1982. After the enforcement of the Act, 1987, Lok Adalats are being organized by the various authorities and committees in accordance with provisions of the Act. But the major defect of the Lok Adalat system was that it did not have power to adjudicate the case or matter before it, particularly when one of the parties is not agreed for settlement, though the case or matter involves an element of settlement. This adamant attitude shown by one among the parties will render the entire process futile. Even if all the members of the Lok Adalat are of the opinion that the case is a fit for settlement, but, they are not authorized to takes decision on the merit. Second defect is that Lok Adalats are not organized daily at a particular place. It also become a reason for the failure of the efforts of the members of LokAdalat because some legal matters can not be settled in a single day. There must be continuous and repeated conciliatory efforts for the settlement these complicated legal matters such as matrimonial, family, labour disputes and landlord-tenant controversies, etc. Due to these reasons, Dr. A.S. Anand, the Chief Justice of India (as he then was), emphasized upon the idea of establishing the Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalats nin all the districts in the country. He, as an Executive chairman of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), wrote a letter to all the Chief Justice of the High Courts requesting them to establish Permanent Lok Adalats at all levels.93

In the significant case of Abdul Hassan v. Delhi Vidyut Board,the Delhi High Court emphasized to the idea of setting up Permanent Lok Adalat and observed that there is a serious problem of overcrowding of dockets. Seekers of justice are in millions and it is becoming rather difficult for the Courts to cope up with the ever increasing cases with the present infrastructure and manpower. There is need for decentralization of justice. Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalats should reestablished with the object not only to reduce the pendency in Courts but also to achieve the end of Article 39A and the object of Act, 1987. Besides, a solitary appearance of parties before a Lok Adalat which is organized for a day or two may not be adequate for arriving at a compromise or settlement. The need of the hour is frantically beckoning for setting up Lok Adalats on permanent and continuous basis. The court further directed that for facilitating expeditious disposal of all kinds of cases Permanent Lok Adalats must be set up in Delhi Vidyut Board,Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Committee, Delhi Development Authority, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, General Insurance of India and various departments of the Government. Since the State and instrumentalists have the largest number of cases instituted by and against them in various level of courts. There should also be one or more Permanent Lok Adalats, depending upon the magnitude of the work, for resolving the disputes between (1)the citizens and the Government of India, and (2) the Government of India and its employees.93. S.S. Sharma, Legal Services, Public Interest Litigations and ParaLegal Services, 188(2003).94. AIR 1999 Del 88.

In the light of above reasons, the Parliament amended the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 in 2002 and introduced anew chapter VIA with the caption Pre– Litigation Conciliation and Settlement. The amendment was made in order to establish Permanent Lok Adalat (for brevity ‘PLA’) for determining the matters relating to Public Utility Services. , if disputes are not settled by Permanent Lok Adalat by the way of conciliation,then the disputes can be decided on the basis of merit.Because, it has been revealed that PLA under Section 22C(8)can exercise its decision making power for the determination ofthe dispute. But, when the Permanent Lok Adalat disposes of the case on the failure of conciliation proceeding, a sufficient opportunity must be granted to the parties so that they may address the Adalat on their respective plea. As it has been directed by the Supreme Court and various High Courts that such power must be used with due care and caution and invoked only as a last resort. The Lok Adalats or Permanent Lok Adalats shall be guided by the principles of natural justice,objectivity, fair play, equity and other principles of justice without being bound by the Code of Civil Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. The expression ‘the other legal principles’ also include the judgment of the Apex Court as well as High Courts in regard to any case or matter referred to Lok Adalat for settlement. As per the directions of the Court, they are also obliged to follow the statutory provisions, rules and regulations made under the Act, 1987. It has been conferred with all the indicia of a court since it shall be deemed to be a civil court.So, it enjoys the same powers as that of a civil court in summoning and enforcing the attendance of any witness;examining him on oath; reception of evidence on affidavits;requisition of any public record or document Every award of Lok Adalat or Permanent Lok Adalat shall\be final and binding on all the parties to the dispute and shall be deemed to be the decree of civil court. The award of LokAdalat is an order by the Lok Adalat with the consent of the parties, instead of the process of arguments in court, therefore,there is no need either to reconsider or review the matter again and again, and no appeal can be filed against the award. But such award of Lok Adalat and/or PLA come under the writ jurisdictions of the High Court and the Supreme Court only when the award has been passed against the statutory provisions and principle of natural justice. It is necessary to provide this opportunity to aggrieved party against the miscarriage of justice  separate Lok Adalats for the government departments and public by Lok Adalat or Permanent Lok Adalat.

A Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and J. Chelameswar  of the Supreme Court in a very recent 2-said: in a very recent 2013 case held: “Section 21 of the Legal Services Authorities Act does not make out any such distinction between the reference made by a civil court and a criminal court. There is no restriction on the power of the lok adalat to pass an award based on the compromise arrived at between the parties in respect of cases referred to by various courts (both civil and criminal), tribunals, family court, rent control court, consumer redress forum, the motor accidents claims tribunal and other [similar] forums.”

Writing the judgment, Justice Sathasivam said: “Even if a matter is referred by a criminal court under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act and by virtue of the deeming provisions, the award passed by the lok adalat based on a compromise has to be treated as a decree capable of execution by a civil court.”

The question posed for the Supreme Court’s consideration in an appeal (against a Kerala High Court order) was that when a criminal case filed under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, referred by the magistrate court to the lok adalat, was settled by the parties and an award recording settlement was passed, could it be considered a decree of a civil court and thus executable.

In the instant case, K.N. Govindan Kutty Menon and C.D. Shaji arrived at a compromise. On a reference from the Legal Services Authority, the lok adalat in Ernakulam passed an award of Rs. 6,000. Mr. Shaji paid Rs.500 on the same day and agreed to pay the rest in five instalments of Rs.1,100 a month. As he id not pay any more, Mr. Menon filed an execution petition before the Principal Munsif Judge, Ernakulam, who dismissed it. The Kerala High Court upheld this order. The present appeal is directed against this judgment.

During the hearing of the appeal, the Bench appointed senior counsel V. Giri asamicus curiaeand counsel P. Prasanth appeared for the appellant.

Allowing the appeal, the Bench held that Parliament tasked the judiciary with implementing the provisions of the Legal Services Authorities Act. “Section 21 of the Act contemplates a deeming provision, hence it is a legal fiction that the ‘award’ of the lok adalat is a decree of a civil court,” it said.

The Bench held that the courts below erred in holding that only if the matter was referred by a civil court could it be a decree and if the matter was referred by a criminal court it would only be an order of the criminal court and not a decree under Section 21 of the Legal Services Authorities Act.

The Bench set aside the judgment and restored the execution petition. It asked the execution court to proceed further as per law.

Conclusion:      It is necessary to provide this opportunity to aggrieved party against themiscarriage of justice by Lok Adalat or Permanent Lok Adalat.

Therefore,  I’d recommend establishing Permanent  Lok Adalat system all over India for delivering informal, cheap and expeditious justice to the common man and also widen their scope to  bring such Permanent Lok Adalats for  all government departments and public sector undertakings. Their jurisdiction should be extended to cover matters like intellectual property rights, environment, matters relating to education system, money laundering, cyber crime, taxation, banking services, services by professionals and business matters, etc.

PLAs should be empowered to decide all the other categories of cases cited above on the basis of conciliation and persuasion and on adjudication basis.

If the above measures-  as per my suggestions are adopted, soon we can  substantially cut the  vast arrears of cases pending before formal and regular courts by 90%  except  those of non compoundable offences such as rape, murder and other serious offences and important constitutional  law questions etc. These type of cases be best left decided by regular courts including the Supreme Court and all other matters must be   provided to be decided by Permanent Lok Adalats both on conciliatory and persuasive methods and on merits in a very expeditious and cost effective manner and this would also help improve the Structure, Working, procedure and result of the functioning of the Lok Adalat system.  They should really be made the  people’s  courts in the real sense of the term both in letter and spirit.

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