PERMANENT LOK-ADALAT: A FEATHER IN THE CAP OF DISPUTE RESOLUTION MECHANISMBy- Niyati Nagar
INTRODUCTION Justice which is generally defined as an equal distribution of benefits and burden is what compose the fair and equal society. Such justice is delivered through a hierarchy of courts and by following some legal standards and forums set out. However, the large number of cases instituted, and the pendency of the same create a deterrence in the mechanism of dispensation of justice; to curb this problem of pendency Alternative Dispute Resolution (Hereinafter referred to as ADR) has been introduced as one of the means and has provided a channel for access to justice. Lok Adalat (Herein after referred to as LA) is one of the fine and familiar mechanism of ADR which has been playing a prime role in the matters for settlement of disputes. The institution of Lok Adalats has its deep roots embedded in the soil of Indian Legal History and has played significant role in providing access to justice to the people of Indian society to a great level. The system of Lok Adalat derives its statutory status from The Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 and its constitutional mandate from Art 39A of the Constitution of India. The objective is to provide free Legal Services to the weaker sections of the society and to organize Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes and to ensure that opportunity for acquiring justice is not denied. Though the mechanism of Lok Adalat is simple, quick and cost-effective yet the most important requirement is the consent of both the parties if the parties do not consent then the mechanism and consequently the settlement fails. Lok Adalat system is taken to be the repository of public confidence in view of its intrinsic strength which knows no barricades as it flows through the basic human percepts of equity, good conscience, fair play and natural justice. The seeds of Lok Adalat mechanism was sown in the year of 1982 in Gujarat which has now grown as a large tree whose branches has been reached in every nook and corner of the country. It’s a democratized alternative form of formal justice delivery system which was developed by the continuous efforts of the people striving to find a cheap, effective and speedy system of justice. The institution of Lok Adalat with the help of modes like discussing, counselling, negotiating, persuading aims to resolve the dispute between the parties and does not use any kind of undue influence, coercion, threat or fraud but uses conciliatory methods to settle the disputes. It is not a substitute but a supplementary to the ordinary courts that are functioning to reduce the work load of the courts. The vernacular meaning of Lok Adalat is ‘People’s Court’ but it does not seem to be an ordinary court in its accepted connotation. There is no standardized or statuary definition of the term, it is now widely accepted as an informal, voluntary, dispute settlement agency involving the people and public spirited lawyers and citizens. They do not follow an adjudicatory mechanism, rather they are para-judicial institutions whose function is to ensure that the parties to the dispute reach a settlement through compromise. PERMANENT LOK ADALAT- A WAY FORWARD The lack of power to make a binding decision without the consent of the parties was seen as a major drawback in the functioning of Lok Adalat which led to unnecessary delay in the process of dispensation of justice. Thus, in 2002 Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 was amended and Chapter VI A was introduced providing for a Permanent Lok Adalat (Herein after referred to as PLA). To get the case referred to the Lok Adalat for settlement which is pending or in pre-litigative stage. The State Legal Services Authority or District Legal Services Authority as the case may be on receipt of an application from any one of the parties at a pre-litigation stage may refer such matter to the Lok Adalat for amicable settlement of the dispute for which notice would then be issued to the other party. The forum of Permanent Lok Adalat has been provided with all the colors of the spectrum which includes the settlement of disputes related to public utility services, compoundable criminal offences and the matters where the value of property in dispute does not exceed ten lakh rupees. In the conciliation proceeding, the Permanent Lok Adalat is authorized to formulate the terms of possible settlement which may be acceptable to the parties to enable them to reach at an amicable settlement. However, if the parties fail to reach at an agreement, the Permanent Lok Adalat has power to decide the dispute on merit except the non-compoundable offences. The procedure followed by Lok Adalat or Permanent Lok Adalat is simple, flexible, informal and devoid of all technicalities but varied as the nature of the problems. The Lok Adalats or Permanent Lok Adalats are guided by the principles of natural justice, objectivity, fair play, equity and other principles of justice without being bound by the shackles of the Code of Civil Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. It has been conferred with all the indicia of a court since it shall be deemed to be a civil court. Hence, it enjoys the same powers as that of a civil court in matters of summoning and enforcing the attendance of any witness; examining him on oath; reception of evidence on affidavits; requisition of any public record or document. Every award of Lok Adalat or Permanent Lok Adalat shall be final and binding on all the parties to the dispute and shall be deemed to be the decree of civil court. The award of Lok Adalat is based upon the consent of the disputants, therefore, no appeal can be filed against the award. However, such award comes under the domain of the writ jurisdictions of the High Court and the Supreme Court only when the award has been against the statutory provisions and the principle of natural justice. However, Permanent Lok Adalat is different from Lok Adalat. The major difference between LA and PLA is when one of the parties to a dispute, pending before any Court and referred to the regular Lok Adalat or a pre-litigation case, does not agree, the other party will be advised to pursue his remedies by approaching a Civil Court but in the Permanent Lok Adalat for Public Utility Services, even if one of the parties fail to reach an agreement during conciliation proceedings, it may decide the dispute on merits under section 22C(8) of the LSA Act and such a decision shall be final and binding on all the parties thereto and on persons claiming under them under section 22 E (1) and shall not be called in question in any original suit, application or execution proceeding as per section 22 E (4) of the Legal Services Authority, Act. PATHWAY TO THE ENFORCEMENT The classification of the Permanent Lok Adalats as an ADR mechanism has always been in question. In State of Punjab v. Jalour Singh Supreme Court held that such type of Lok Adalats only have a conciliatory role and the award of the Lok Adalats does not mean and imply any form of an independent verdict or an opinion derived out of the decision-making process. The Permanent Lok Adalats in contradistinction to Lok Adalats have been expressly conferred as an adjudicatory role by the statute. When a matter, at a Permanent Lok Adalat cannot be settled by means of conciliation, it is then statutorily enjoined to decide the dispute of its merit. Therefore, the judgement laid down in the said case, does not apply with Permanent Lok Adalats as because the court was not at all considering the provision as enshrined under Section 22 C (8) of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. In addition to this Permanent Lok Adalat has been established to deal particularly in matters of Public Utility Services as provided under section 22B of the Act and/or any other matter so prescribed in the notification by the legislature. Moreover, as soon as the amendments were made to the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, they were challenged, but were upheld by the Supreme Court of India. In Life Insurance Corporation of India v. Suresh Kumar Supreme Court observed that Permanent Lok Adalats have no jurisdiction over matters wherein the parties failed to eventually come to a reasonable settlement. However, Supreme Court has not considered applying Section 19 of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 which states that “Continuous Lok Adalats” sometimes are loosely described as “Permanent Lok Adalats” and this shouldn’t be confused with that of Section 22 B (1) of the same Act. Further, the position was itself clarified by the Supreme Court itself in the case of InterGlobe Aviation Ltd. v. N. Satchidanand that a Permanent Lok Adalat has the right to decide the case upon the merits if the parties are unable to reach an amicable situation. The Supreme Court passed a ruling saying that the Parliament has given the authority to the Permanent Lok Adalats to decide the matters upon its merit and therefore it has an adjudicatory role to play. Currently there are 298 Permanent Lok Adalats functioning throughout the country. In previous two years from April 2017 to March 2019, there has been increase of only 6.79% in settlements through Permanent Lok Adalat, where it sat for 26615 meeting in 2018-19. After analysing the statistics it is observed that there is requirement of expert determination by the consent of the parties of the actual factual ground and evidences of the dispute for the disputes in Permanent Lok Adalats are mostly related to public utility services and other specified matters. CONCLUSION In practice, the Permanent Lok Adalats have similar benefits to that of a Lok Adalat and they suffer from the same disadvantages as well. However, the Permanent Lok Adalats functions continuously and require an additional and a separate expenditure, and is also provided with an additional state owned conciliation mechanism with the capacity and the time to deal with a much greater number of complex cases than that of the ordinary Lok Adalats. Hence, it is said that the dispute resolution through the system of Permanent Lok Adalats, further supported by Central Rules is an ADR mechanism which is hybrid in nature, and has both adjudicatory and non-adjudicatory trappings that offers a substitute to conventional system of litigation and makes the public free from the system of complexity and rigidity. Being assigned with the adjudicatory role Permanent Lok Adalat are not immune from the obligations towards natural justice principles and requires dutiful devotion of the presiding officer devoid of any judgment towards the dispute in particular. “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay, right or justice” pledges the 40th paragraph of the Magna Carta, and herein lie the roots of modern legal aid jurisprudence.