Lok Adalats – Are Litigants On The Receiving End?

Author: Nathan Gomes Student, Gujarat Law Society, Ahmedabad


The present scenario of our justice delivery system puts the litigants who form the very base of any judicial structure on the receiving end. The burden over the judiciary as a result of the pending cases, arrears and unreasonable delay in the disposal of the cases from the lowest authority to the highest has become unmanageable and thereby has also grabbed the attention of the people. On the other end, it is also important to fulfill the very object of the Constitution i.e., Equal access to Justice, but the same shall seem to be farfetched in the next few years unless they are disposed off on a war footing. Delay in the disposal of cases has created an alarming situation in the Indian justice delivery system as to how this time taken in the disposal of cases be reduced? The simple answer to it was to make the system of justice, inexpensive so that the same justice which is available to the elite class is also made available to the poor. The then justice delivery system seemed to be alien in having direct contact with the masses and thereby seemed to be meaningless. This however startled the members of the Law Commission of India, who started thinking of ways in order to revive the indigenous legal system and thereby create a model which shall work for the purpose of lessoning the burden over the Judiciary and thereby also help in speedy disposal of cases which shall be purely based on the principles of participatory justice and hence, the establishment of the Lok Adalats, which shall be a supplementary system and not a substitute thereof to the already existent system. The object was to evolve a system which provides justice even to the poor section of the society.

Introduction

The Indian culture is well versed with the concept of settlement of disputes via conciliation. There existed Nyaya Panchayats and Gram Panchayats which resolved the civil and criminal disputes amongst the villagers on an immediate basis. The creation of the Lok Adalats is just another addition to the forums provided for satisfactory justice. Lok Adalats form part of the Alternate Dispute Resolution system which functions on the principles of equity, justice and fair play. The Constitutional Courts have in the recent time emphasized on the need for the settlement of disputes outside the courts in order to promote justice on the basis of equal opportunity in addition to providing free legal aid.  It was for the fulfillment of this purpose that the Legal Service Authority Act was enacted.

Operative Portion

The Preamble of the said Act makes it clear that it had been created to provide competent and free legal service to the weaker section of the society so that these people are not denied justice just because they are economically backward. The Act in furtherance of the said object, makes provisions for the establishment, cognizance of cases, awards and powers of the Lok Adalat. The object of these Lok Adalats is to provide speedy justice with mutual and free consent of the disputants and thereby also reduce the burden on the Courts. As mentioned aforesaid, that there is also a need to create an inexpensive system, the creation of Lok Adalats is considered to be a step in that direction as it saves not only the time but also the huge expenditure on the proceedings in the present system.

Section 19 of the Legal Service Authority Act provides for the organization of the Lok Adalats, its composition and also the jurisdiction within which these Lok Adalats can exercise its powers. Clause 5 of section 19 provides that the Lok Adalat shall have jurisdiction to determine and to arrive at a compromise or settlement between the disputants in respect of: 1. Any case pending before it 2. Any matter which is falling within the jurisdiction of and is not brought before any courts for which the Lok Adalat is organized, provided that the Lok Adalat shall not have the jurisdiction in respect of any case where the offence is not compoundable under Law. But the question here is that can the matters be taken up for settlement on mere reference of the same by the court? Will the award passed by the Lok Adalat, in a matter referred to it by the court stand ground if this reference is without the consent of both the parties? These questions have been answered in a series of judgements, the Karnataka High Court in the case of Basamma v. Taluka Legal Service Committee[1] held that when the matter is referred to the legal service authority, the authority is required to note the presence of the parties and satisfy itself that the parties have voluntarily and out of their own accord, with free will, have entered into the settlement. Further, the Gauhati High Court in the case of Oriental Insurance Co. Ltd v. Taunchi Langma[2], held that the Lok Adalat will take cognizance on the basis of joint application made to the court or tribunal expressing their intention for compromising of the said matter. Therefore, it is clear from the aforementioned judgements that the matter cannot be referred to the Lok Adalat by the court without giving a reasonable opportunity to the parties of being heard.

When we talk about cognizance, we mean cognizance taken by the Lok Adalat under section 20 of the said Act, wherein it is important to place reference on clause 3, 4 and 5 of section 20 which state as to what should be done by the Lok Adalat when a matter is referred to it, what should be the object of the Lok Adalat and the principle on which its foundation is based and what should be done when no settlement is reached between the parties. In the third situation, wherein the matters cannot be settled between the parties, the Lok Adalat shall return the matter to the court which had referred the parties and thereby advice the parties to seek remedy available in the court. In cases where the settlement is arrived at, in such cases, the Lok Adalat shall pass an award under section 21 of the Act which shall deemed to be the decree of a civil court and thereby shall be final and binding on all the parties. There are two questions that come to our mind: 1. Can the Lok Adalat adjudicate upon the rights of the parties 2. If the decision of the Lok Adalat is final and binding what is the remedy available to the aggrieved party?

With regard to the first question, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in the case of Smt. Santosh Gupta v. LIC India[3], held that the Lok Adalat cannot adjudicate upon the rights of the parties unless there is a compromise between the parties, all it can do is pass a consent decree. In another case, the Bombay High Court held that the Lok Adalat cannot pass an order in the matter where there is no compromise between the parties as per the provisions of the Act and in case the order is passed, then it will be declared as null and void[4].

In relation to the second question, it is important to note that every finality clause in a provision excludes the jurisdiction of the court in several ways. However, the highest constitutional courts have made it crystal clear that the remedy of judicial review available under Articles 32, 136, 226 and 227 of the Constitution cannot be excluded by such finality clauses. The Supreme Court in the case of Indira Nehru Gandhi v. Raj Narain[5], opined that where the Constitution itself provides that the action of the administrative authority shall be final, the judicial review provided under the aforementioned Articles is not barred.

Conclusion

I would conclude by stating that the very purpose of the enactment of the Act as well as the organization of the Lok Adalat was to provide justice to the weaker sections of the society as well as to provide a helping hand to the Judiciary in order to reduce the delay in disposal of cases. The said purpose can only be achieved if it is done with the right intent and commitment to the same.

[1] AIR 2003 Karn 242

[2] 2003 (1) Gau L.R 428

[3] AIR  2004 NOC 118 (P&H)

[4] AIR 2009 (NOC) 805 (Bom)

[5] AIR 1975 SC 2299

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