Lok Adalats unclog a choked justice delivery system

Lok Adalats unclog a choked justice delivery system

Recently, the KSLSA has also taken an initiative to list civil suits for settlements in Lok Adalats. But is this enough?

But not all legal cases can be referred to Lok Adalats. Credit: DH File Photo

Mara and Geetha from Mysuru had decided to end their nearly three-decade-long marriage owing to personal differences. The divorce was confirmed in 2018, but given that the issue of alimony was still pending, they agreed to a mutual settlement in the Lok Adalat held last month, on August 14.

The matter was settled not in maintenance to be given to the spouse but by way of reuniting the couple. Such a turnaround is attributed to the environment in a Lok Adalat court room as against usual courtroom proceedings.

The Karnataka State Legal Services Authority (KSLSA), which has been conducting mega Lok Adalats to settle certain select old pending cases, proudly announced that on August 14, some 21 such reunions materialised in Mysuru alone. 

This is exactly in consonance with what Chief Justice of India N V Ramana proposed in a recent programme held in Bengaluru. 

He emphasised the need for Indianisation of the judicial system. Explaining further, Justice Ramana said there is a need to adapt to the practical realities of our society and localise the justice delivery system. Against this backdrop, the Lok Adalat could well be a step forward in taking the justice delivery system to the doorsteps of the litigants.

The Lok Adalat is proving to be an innovative mechanism to settle disputes and reduce pendency of court cases. 

Across the country, some 19.88 lakh pending court cases have been settled in state Lok Adalats since 2018. 

Haryana tops the list, with an 18% share in total cases disposed, followed closely by Karnataka (13.3%), Odisha (10.25%) & Delhi (9.69%).

During the pandemic, Karnataka disposed of 1.29 lakh cases through state Lok Adalats.

A single sitting of a mega Lok Adalat (several Lok Adalats held across the state on a single day) in March this year saw some 3.12 lakh cases getting disposed of, with Rs 18 crore of penalties imposed. The KSLSA estimates that this single instance also saved the state exchequer Rs 123-odd crore, by way of judges' remuneration and office costs.

Considering these aspects, there is no doubt that Lok Adalat has been a success. But should this system be encouraged, or is it an indication that the legal system needs a revamp?

With a statutory status under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, the Lok Adalat is one of the alternative dispute redressal mechanisms now made popular by various legal services authorities.

But not all legal cases can be referred to Lok Adalats. 

Most cases listed are accident claim cases and compoundable offences. The other categories of cases that have been recently posted arise out of land acquisition proceedings, usually on claims for enhancement of compensation. 

Every award of the Lok Adalat is deemed to be a decree of the civil court and the court fee paid in such cases shall be refunded. 

More importantly, the award made by the Lok Adalat is final and binding on all the parties to dispute and with no possibility of appeal against such an award.

Recently, the KSLSA has also taken an initiative to list civil suits for settlements in Lok Adalats.

But is this enough?

Data from the National Judicial Data Grid (as of September 25), shows some 19.31 lakh cases pending in various district courts in Karnataka alone. 

This includes 6.13 lakh civil cases. In all, 28% of these cases have been pending in the lower courts for more than three years.

With just 1,072 courts to deal with all types of legal matters, the rising volume of cases along with the increasing rate of pendency is a matter of concern.

Compared to this, Lok Adalats in the state have settled just 22.61 lakh cases over the course of more than two decades, from April 1997 till January 2020. 

Harish Narasappa, an advocate and co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation Daksh India, says the Lok Adalat system could focus more on fresh cases. “Settling old cases through mediation is a great effort. But in my personal opinion, it is ideal if mediation is done within the first 6-12 months of cases being filed. At the early stage, parties involved in the litigation are in doubt about whether to settle or to continue the litigation, considering the merits of the case.”

But what is wrong in settling cases that are pending for 15-20 years? 

Some advocates, who do not wish to be named, say that litigants get frustrated because of the delay in the justice delivery system. 

“Going to court may not necessarily be a good option. When you file a case before the court, you expect the case to be decided one way or the other within a stipulated time. When you are given a choice to settle after a long wait for justice, it is nothing but pushing the clients to go for a settlement,” the advocate said.

Drop in the ocean

The high number of pendency even in Lok Adalat cases raises another pertinent question: Is this system sufficient to address the real issue of delay in the delivery of justice?  

Speaking to DH, former Supreme Court judge and former Karnataka Lokayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde said that the judiciary has to take note of the pendency among the new cases filed in the past 5-10 years.  He said that there is a need to revamp the justice delivery system to weed out speculative litigations/filings. 

“While Lok Adalat is being pressed into service to settle old cases, much needs to be done to tackle the new pending cases. We have a system in place which allows people to file repeated appeals or revisions. Many developed countries have evolved this method of not more than one appeal/revision in certain categories of cases. What we are seeing today is that any case can be taken up till the Supreme Court. The judges in the Supreme Court are also human beings. The only way to instill faith in the judiciary is to weed out speculative litigations, by restricting 2-3 revisions. Like Lok Adalat, which is a final settlement and there cannot be any appeal on such a settlement, judicial review will have to be limited only to certain categories of cases,” he says.

Mandatory mediation

With the success of settling old cases through Lok Adalats, there is a demand to include mediation in as many disputes as possible. 

Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka, judge of the Supreme Court who was the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, had suggested that the litigants in motor vehicle accident claim cases need to be informed about the settlement facility through Lok Adalat at the stage of filing of claim petition itself.

A case in point is a provision in Commercial Courts Act 2015. 

According to section 12A of this Act, the plaintiff has the mandatory obligation to initiate the mediation process. However, a senior advocate pointed out that according to the Commercial Courts (Pre-Institution Mediation and Settlement) Rules 2018, the opposing party has the right to refuse to participate in the mediation process.

What is now in the pipeline is the Mediation Bill, which is expected to be tabled in the parliament soon. In July, Justice Ramana had emphasised the need for a law to make mediation a mandatory first step in the dispute resolution process. 

He said that mandating mediation would certainly help reduce the backlog of three crore pending cases in the country.

And as Justice Hegde pointed out in March 2021, litigants today are in dire need of ways to come out of the judicial process.

This could either be done through the Lok Adalat or a mandatory mediation process.

“Though the constitution specifically does not say access to justice is a fundamental right, it has been stated so in clear terms by the Apex Court that it is a right of every citizen. There is another aspect of the judicial system other than access to justice. And that is to come out of the justice system which should be fast and quick,” Justice Hegde said.

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