At the time of the formal adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1950, there existed a unified structure of courts and laws, which were left undisturbed, as their removal or modification would have signified the upheaval of the entire judicial structure. Disputes of all citizens were settled through a well-defined and recognised system of litigation. The courts have formal rules for settlement of disputes and their decision is binding on the parties, but is subject to appeal to the higher court. The system is highly technical and formal, and the judge controls the proceedings as well as the outcome of the litigation. However, litigation does not always lead to satisfactory results as it is expensive, in terms of both time and money. Moreover, in most cases, the litigants do not achieve satisfactory compensation and continue fighting in further appeals. This leads to the development of an adversarial attitude between the litigants which provide impetus for even more appeals in higher courts. These are some of the reasons why an alternative approach to resolve disputes between litigants was considered to be of vital importance.
“The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.”
Delays in litigation can give rise to several issues. It can become costly, both in terms of time and money, for individuals as well as collectively for the society. Such delay leads to deterioration of evidence as well as delay in awarding of compensation to litigants when they most need it. This also leads to society at large losing faith in the formal judicial system and therefore individuals are deterred from bringing their cases.
Moreover, the Supreme Court of India recognized the “right to speedy trial” as being implicit in one’s right to life and personal liberty in the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar. The facts of the case dealt with under-trial prisoners in Bihar, some of whom had been imprisoned as under-trials for terms longer than the maximum punishable imprisonment period under the law. It primarily dealt with three constitutional provisions: Equality before law, Right to life and personal liberty and free legal aid.
Lok Adalats are one of the components of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) systems in India. For petitioners in civil disputes, Lok Adalats emerged as supplementary forums to formal law courts. With the availability of such a provision, the justice dispensing system of India was impelled into a new era. The institution of Lok Adalat is based on the principle of justice and mutual compromise. It is not a substitute to the judicial court system, but complimentary to the same as it reduces the burden on the court, provides inexpensive and speedy justice and creates awareness amongst common citizens regarding their rights and duties
The first Lok Adalat was held on March of 1982 in Junagarh in Gujarat. The development of the Legal Services Authorities Act gave statutory status to Lok Adalats, in conformance with the constitutional mandate in Article 39A. It contains various provisions for settlement of disputes through Lok Adalat. The primary aim of Lok Adalats is to reach an amicable agreement between the two parties of the dispute. It is essential that the solution reached by the Lok Adalat should be acceptable to both the parties to the dispute. Cases relating to claims for compensation in motor accidents, compensation for land acquisition cases, family disputes, intellectual property rights disputes and compoundable criminal cases are now being resolved through arbitration, conciliation, mediation and/or negotiation.
Section 19 provides that every state authority, district authority, High Court Legal Services Committee or the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee may organise Lok Adalats to obtain quicker and cheaper settlement of pending cases. It is a system established by the government to provide social justice to people through conciliation, negotiation, and compromise. It is presided over by a retired judge accompanied by two other members, preferably a lawyer and a social worker. The Lok Adalat does not require any court fees. Under Section 21, binding force is given to the awards granted by the Lok Adalats, without offering an appeals procedure.
With time, Lok Adalats proliferated throughout the country and assisted immensely in relieving the burden that was put on the formal judicial system. The emergence of such a system also provided relief to the litigants as they could now get their disputes resolved in a quicker manner and also control the outcome of their disputes as in most cases, there is no involvement of a third party pleading the case. Both the victim and the convict can speak with the judge directly and resolve the dispute through established ADR techniques.
In 2002, the Parliament passed an amendment to institutionalize Lok Adalats by making them a permanent body to settle the disputes related to public utility services. The Central or State Authorities may, by notification, establish Permanent Lok Adalats, to settle issues in connection to Public Utility Services.
However there are some implicit disadvantages as well. Even though disputes are resolved faster and justice is served quickly, often the litigants have to settle for lower amounts in compensation as petitioners are unable to claim higher amounts. Therefore it is imperative for the institution of Lok Adalats to be careful about not impairing the rights of any individual at the cost of speedy justice. Moreover, not all cases are suitable for settlement under Lok Adalats. Only civil disputes can be resolved on such a platform. There are also issues of understaffing and lack of resources. There is also the issue of finality of the judgement. Once both parties consent to resolve their dispute through the institution of Lok Adalat, they cannot back out and the final decision becomes binding on both parties and cannot be challenged further under Lok Adalats. There is an element of mutual compromise involved in the decision-making process of Lok Adalats. Therefore, if a party is not willing to compromise sufficiently, it becomes impossible to resolve the dispute and the matter has to be referred to a formal court.
Therefore, there is need for implementation of reforms within the functioning of Lok Adalats; and for the same purpose we would like to offer some suggestions. First, an influx of funds and staff will assist in the efficient functioning of Lok Adalats. This will improve the number of cases settled in the institution as more resources will be available for the smooth functioning of the same. Second, India is a vast country with varied customs and traditions. Therefore it is vital for such things to be taken into consideration while settling disputes, without which the resolution in certain cases will not be accepted by the parties to the dispute. More specialists such as social workers, as well as community leaders must be involved in the justice dispensing process so that decisions are arrived at considering the prevalent customs and local culture of the region. Third, the citizens need to be informed better about the alternative dispute resolution possibilities within the country, so that they can make a choice to settle their civil disputes in a cost effective manner using negotiation, mediation and conciliation; instead of further burdening the courts.
The concept of Lok Adalats or “Peoples’ Court” has roots in Indian legal history. It was developed based on the practice of Nyaya Panchayats, which function as a system of alternate dispute resolution in rural India. Nyaya Panchayat is based on the principle of natural justice. Lok Adalats have now become one of the most important and efficient ADR mechanisms, well suited for the Indian environment, culture and societal interests.
[Syamantak Sen is a 2nd Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at the National Law Institute University, Bhopal and takes an interest in Competition Law and Intellectual Property Rights, and Sanjula Chakraborty is a 1st Year B.A.LL.B (Hons.) Student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.]
 The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976.
 Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, AIR 1979 SC 1360.
 The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987.
 The Legal Services Authorities (Amendment) Act, 2002.