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 for conciliatory settlement of their disputes. In 1987, the Legal Services Authorities Act (“Act”) was enacted to give a statutory base to legal aid programmes throughout the country on a uniform pattern. This Act was finally enforced on November 9, 1995 after certain amendments were introduced therein by the Amendment Act of 1994. Hon. Mr. Justice R.N. Mishra the then Chief Justice of India played a key role in the enforcement of the Act.
National Legal Services Authority was constituted on 5th December 1995. His Lordship Hon. Dr. Justice A.S. Anand, Judge, Supreme Court of India took over as the Executive Chairman of National Legal Services Authority on July 17, 1997. Soon after assuming the office, His Lordship initiated steps for making the National Legal Services Authority functional. The first Member Secretary of the authority joined in December 1997 and by January 1998 the other officers and staff were also appointed. By February 1998, the office of National Legal Services Authority became properly functional for the first time.
In October 1998, His Lordship Hon. Dr. Justice A.S. Anand assumed the Office of the Chief Justice of India and thus became the Patron-in-Chief of National Legal Services Authority. His Lordship Hon. Mr. Justice S.P. Bharucha, the senior-most Judge of the Supreme Court of India assumed the office of the Executive Chairman, National Legal Services Authority.
A nationwide network has been envisaged under the Act for providing legal aid and assistance. National Legal Services Authority is the apex body constituted to lay down policies and principles for making legal services available under the provisions of the Act and to frame most effective and economical schemes for legal services. It also disburses funds and grants to State Legal Services Authorities and NGOs for implementing legal aid schemes and programmes.
District Legal Services Authority is constituted in every District to implement Legal Aid Programmes and Schemes in the District. The District Judge of the District is its ex-officio Chairman.
Taluk Legal Services Committees are also constituted for each of the Taluk or Mandal or for a group of Taluk or Mandals to coordinate the activities of legal services in the Taluk and to organize Lok Adalats. Every Taluk Legal Services Committee is headed by a senior Civil Judge operating within the jurisdiction of the Committee who is its ex-officio Chairman.
The Central Authority shall constitute a Committee to be called the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee for the purpose of exercising such powers and performing such functions as may be determined by regulations made by the Central Authority.
As per Section 20 of the Act, cases can be referred for consideration of Lok Adalat only:-
(i) By consent of both the parties to the disputes.
(ii) When one of the parties makes an application for reference.
(iii) Where the Court is satisfied that the matter is an appropriate one to be taken cognizance of by the Lok Adalat.
(iv) When compromise settlement shall be guided by the principles of justice, equity, fair play and other legal principles.
(v) Where no compromise has been arrived at through conciliation, the matter shall be returned to the concerned court for disposal in accordance with Law.
Section 21 of the said Act provides that after an agreement is arrived by the consent of the parties, the award is passed by the Lok Adalat. The matter need not be referred to the concerned Court for a consent decree. As per the Act, every award of a Lok Adalat shall be deemed as a decree of Civil Court. Further, every award is final and binding on all the parties to the dispute and no appeal shall lie from the award of the Lok Adalat.
Proceedings of the Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings for the purpose of summoning of witnesses, discovery of documents, collection of evidences and requisitioning of public records.
It is emphasized that the legal system should be able to deliver justice expeditiously on the basis of equal opportunity and provide free legal aid to secure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizens by reasons of economic or other disabilities. It was in this context that the Parliament enacted the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987.
The need of the hour was frantically beckoning for setting up Lok Adalats on a permanent and continuous basis. What we do today will shape our tomorrow. Lok Adalat is between an ever-burdened Court System crushing the choice under its own weight and alternative dispute resolution machinery including an inexpensive and quick dispensation of justice. The Lok Adalat and alternative dispute resolution experiment must succeed otherwise the consequence for an overburdened court system would be disastrous. The system needs to inhale the life-giving oxygen of justice through the note.
A need was felt to amend the provisions of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 to incorporate the concept of Permanent Lok Adalats. As a consequence, the Act was amended in 2002 vide Act 37 of 2002 with effect from June 11, 2002. Sections 22A to 22E were added to the Act in the form of Chapter VIA dealing with Pre-litigation Conciliation and Settlement.
The amendment provided for the establishment of Permanent Lok Adalats, which shall consist of a Chairman who is or has been a District Judge or Additional District Judge or has held judicial office higher in rank than that of the district judge and two other persons having adequate experience in public utility services. The Permanent Lok Adalat shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of one or more public utility services such as transport services of passengers or goods by air, road and water, postal, telegraph or telephone services, supply of power, light or water to the public by any establishment, public conservancy or sanitation, services in hospitals or dispensaries; and insurance services. The pecuniary jurisdiction of the Permanent Lok Adalat has raised to rupees ten lakhs. However, the Central Government may increase the said pecuniary jurisdiction from time to time. It shall have not jurisdiction in respect of any matter relating to an offence not compoundable under any law. The amendment also provides that before the dispute is brought before any court, any party to the dispute may make an application to the Permanent Lok Adalat for settlement of the dispute.
Where it appears to the Permanent Lok Adalat that there exist elements of a settlement, which may be acceptable to the parties, it shall formulate the terms of a possible settlement and submit them to the parties for their observations. In case the parties reach an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat shall pass an award in terms thereof. In case parties to the dispute fail to reach an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat shall decide the dispute on merits. Every award made by the Permanent Lok Adalat shall be final and binding on all the parties thereto and shall be by a majority of the persons constituting the Permanent Lok Adalat.
The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 was enacted to constitute legal services authorities for providing free and competent legal services to the weaker sections of the society. The reason was to ensure that opportunities for securing justice were not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities and to organize Lok Adalats to ensure that the operation of the legal system promoted justice on a basis of equal opportunity. The system of Lok Adalat, which is an innovative mechanism for alternate dispute resolution, has proved effective for resolving disputes in a spirit of conciliation outside the courts.
However, the major drawback in the existing scheme of the organization of the Lok Adalats under Chapter VI of the said Act is that the system of Lok Adalats is mainly based on compromise or settlement between the parties. If the parties do not arrive at any compromise or settlement, the case is either returned to the court of law or the parties are advised to seek a remedy in a court of law. This causes unnecessary delay in the dispensation of justice. If Lok Adalats are given the power to decide the cases on merits in case parties fails to arrive at any compromise or settlement, this problem can be tackled to a great extent.
Further, the cases which arise in relation to public utility services such as Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, Delhi Vidyut Board, etc., need to be settled urgently so that people get justice without delay even at pre-litigation stage. Thus, most of the petty cases which ought not to go in the regular courts would be settled at the pre-litigation stage itself which would result in reducing the workload of the regular courts to a great extent. It is, therefore, proposed to amend the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 to set up Permanent Lok Adalats for providing a compulsory pre-litigative mechanism for conciliation and settlement of cases relating to public utility services.
The United States, through Chief justice Warren Burger and the American Bar Association, has been experimenting with and discussing non-judicial routes like arbitration and negotiation as well as simpler judicial alternatives to make justice a poor man’s pragmatic hope. India, like America, suffers from ‘litigation neuroses’ the poor are the worst victims because the rich can afford forensic mountaineering while the needy freeze to death midway. It is therefore integral to any Statute under 39 A to discover imaginatively and innovatively all methodologies of getting inexpensive, early and easy justice. In the United States, Small Claims Courts have been tried with success to resolve minor disputes fairly and more swiftly than any present judicial mechanisms make possible.
The Authors of this article, Sanjeev Kumar is a Partner and Anshul Sehgal is a Managing Associate in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Team at L&L Partners Law Offices, New Delhi. They can be reached out at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views expressed are personal.
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