India's Lok Adalats: Tackling Pendency, 41-Lakh Cases At A Time
After 25 years of marriage, Gita and Prakash** decided to file for divorce. Things took an ugly turn when five years after separation, Prakash refused to pay Rs 3,000 as monthly maintenance to his estranged wife despite a court order in her favour. Subsequently, advocate Sheela MR moved the Mysuru Family Court on behalf of Gita to recover the arrears.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and a severely ill Gita had to go back to her former husband Prakash, whose care prompted a peculiar turn of events. Gita approached the district lok adalat in Mysuru to settle the case but conciliation talks, facilitated by ML Raghunath, the principal district and sessions judge, resulted in the couple agreeing to remarry.
"This is not something that you see everyday," Sheela MR told BloombergQuint. "The lok adalat played a huge role in the remarriage." It went one step ahead and referred the case to the sub registrar’s office to get them re-married, she said.
The thing is litigants aren't even aware that you can get remarried to your former husband even after a divorce because awareness of law and legal procedures is quite low in rural areas. Lok adalats are one of the best ways to fix this problem of lack of awareness.Sheela MR, Advocate
This is just one among lakhs of disputes that lok adalats have been able to resolve swiftly.
Sample the numbers.
In September this year, during the third national lok adalat, over 41 lakh cases were disposed of on a single day, the website of National Legal Services Authority mentions. With staggering pendency—over four crore cases at at district courts more than 50 lakh at subordinate courts—the contribution of lok adalats is no mean feat.
When Covid-19 pandemic hit, almost all courts came to a standstill. The Karnataka State Legal Services Authority was the first to organise lok adalats in a virtual format. In September 2020, 1,15,000 cases were disposed of.
It's the best method of alternative dispute resolution, HS Shetty, member secretary of the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, told BloombergQuint.
It's very useful especially for the poor since there is no appeal, the entire court fee is refunded. Ultimately, it’s a settlement between parties; there is no compulsion.HS Shetty, Member Secretary, Karnataka State Legal Services Authority
In courts, parties have to lay out evidence, engage a counsel and follow the procedural law. When arguments start, hearings may take their own time, Shetty said, adding that the participation of parties is direct in lok adalats.
Soon, other states followed suit. According to NALSA, around 8.1 lakh cases were taken up in toto, of which 4.11 lakh were settled via e-lok adalats throughout the country. In the middle of a raging pandemic.
Lok Adalats: The Structure
The first lok adalat was conducted in 1982 in Gujarat. The institution got statutory recognition in 1987 under the Legal Services Authorities Act. And the National Legal Services Authority was given the task of organising lok adalats.
Each state has a legal services authority which gives implements the policies and directions of the NALSA and conducts lok adalats. The lok adalats are conducted at four different levels in every state.
At all levels—taluka, district, high court and the state—the member secretary constitutes the lok adalat benches. Every bench has a sitting or retired high court judge or judicial officer. The others on the bench include a member from the legal profession or a social worker. All members, irrespective of their professions, take the role of conciliators and facilitate settlement during the sessions.
And then there are national-level, permanent and mobile lok adalats conducted throughout the country, without state barriers.
A decision by a lok adalat has the same effect as a civil court’s decree, meaning it is final and binding on all parties. Also, litigants cannot appeal against lok adalat orders. They can only go back to courts to litigate the matter afresh.
Virtues of lok adalats aside, the constitution of benches require some fresh thinking, Senior Advocate Jayna Kothari pointed out.
When judges are appointed as members of lok adalats, it creates a problem. Judges are not trained to sit for dispute resolution. Judges are trained to be judges and not negotiators or conciliators. So, it may be better if some training is imparted to them for being conciliators or if a conciliator is appointed to settle the dispute.Jayna Kothari, Senior Advocate
Post that, the matter can be closed by a judge, Kothari added.
Lok Adalats: Dispute Resolution
Lok adalats have the jurisdiction to hear a range of matters.
Experts BloombergQuint spoke with explained that once a case is referred to a lok adalat, parties are informed. On the day of the adalat, matters are called up. Parties can mutually agree and file a plea. Courts, too, can refer matters to lok adalats. Or one of the parties can make an application to the court in which their case is pending, requesting it to refer the matter to a lok adalat.
If the request is granted, the state or district legal services authority receives an application from the party. The authority then issues a notice to the opposite party.
Efficacy Of Lok Adalats
Lok adalats are known for speedy disposal of cases. To put things in perspective, the first national lok adalat, conducted on April 10 this year, settled over 65,000 pre-litigation cases and over 4.1 lakh pending cases, according to data provided by NALSA.
During the second lok adalat, held on July 10, over 11 lakh pre-litigation cases were settled. Over 15 lakh pending cases were disposed of; 26 lakh cases settled in one day. And the third one, to reiterate, witnessed a settlement in 41 lakh cases.
One of the main reasons for these commendable numbers is penetration into rural areas, Dhyan Chinnappa, senior advocate and additional advocate general of Karnataka, told BloombergQuint.
In Karnataka, the state legal services authority has undertaken steps like conducting special legal drives and setting up legal aid camps. Spreading awareness is key. Through these instruments, the concept of access to justice for all is given meaning.Dhyan Chinnappa, Senior Advocate and ASG, Karnataka
Making Lok Adalats More Robust
Funds for functioning of lok adalats are required to come from NALSA and the state. But many states allocate little to nothing towards this cause, as the India Justice report published by Tata Trusts in 2019, pointed out.
In 2017-18, six states and Union Territories, had no funds allocated from the state, whereas Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura saw less than 20% being provided by the state governments.India Justice Report 2019
On this parameter, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh scored well, with 80% of the funding needs met by their respective state governments.
Allocation of funds is a big issue. And so is utilisation.
In 2017-18, only five states managed to use more than 90% of the funds allocated by NALSA. Union Territories like Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli spent the least, the Tata Trusts’ report noted.
The benefits of lok adalats need to be capitalised more and this must be driven by states and their agencies, experts said.
In courts, one party wins and the other loses. In lok adalats, both the disputing parties go back with something, Chinnappa said.
"This should be capitalised and be one of the main reasons as to why people look up to lok adalats."
**Names changed to protect identities of parties.