Legal Aid Scheme was first introduced by Justice P. N. Bhagwati under Legal Aid Committee formed in 1971. The Legal Services Authorities Act was enacted to constitute legal services authorities for providing free and competent legal services to weaker sections of the society, to make sure that opportunities for securing justice weren’t denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities and to prepare Lok Adalat to ensure that the operation of the legal judicial system promotes justice to any or all.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE FOR ALL is the motto of legal services authority.
The introduction of Lok Adalat added a brand new chapter to the dispensation system of this country and succeeded in providing a supplementary forum to the litigants for conciliatory settlement for the disputes. It is one of the alternative redressal mechanisms. In 1987 legal services authority act was enacted to relinquish a statutory base to legal aid programs throughout the country on a uniform basis. This Act was finally enforced on 9th November, 1995 after certain amendments were made. The Chief Justice of India Mr. R. N. Mishra had played a key role in enactment of the act.
The first Lok Adalat was held on March 14, 1982 at Junagarh in Gujrat. Lok Adalats had been very successful in settlement of motor accident claims cases, matrimonial/family disputes, bank recovery cases and so on. The establishment of Lok Adalat encouraged the settlement of disputes through negotiation, arbitration and conciliation and securing the legal rights of poor, down trodden and weaker section of the society.
Lok Adalat had been referred as the people’s courts. The jurisdiction of these Lok Adalat is parallel to courts organizing them. It extends to any case which is being heard by that court under its jurisdiction. Matters relevant to offences not compoundable under law are an exception to the present jurisdiction. They can’t be adjudicated in Lok Adalat.
The powers of the Lok Adalat were similar to a civil court. It had been defined within the section 22 of the legal services authority act. Every proceedings of the Lok Adalat shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings with the aim of summoning of witnesses, discovery of documents, reception of evidences and requisitioning of public record. The proceedings of the Lok Adalat were considered to be judicial proceedings.
The parties must first file the dispute or at least verbally mention the matter before the court. Any one of the party may also file an application for referring the dispute to Lok Adalat and court after hearing all the parties, if the basic requirement is fulfilled and if there is any chance of settlement, then parties may refer the dispute to Lok Adalat. The Lok Adalat then sits and tries to come to a proper settlement which is in accordance with the principles of justice and equality. If they are unable to settle the dispute, then the dispute is returned to the court.
Lok Adalats provide justice at no cost, if a matter is pending within the court of law called Lok Adalat and is settled subsequently. It also saves time taken by lengthy court procedures. The parties can directly interact through their counsels, which is not possible in the regular court of law. This dynamic nature of Lok Adalat allows them to conciliate both party interests and pass awards which are acceptable to both parties. Lok Adalat acts as a conciliator between the parties.
In 2020, National Lok Adalat was organised through virtual and physical mode across the country. The requisite safety protocol in view of the COVID-19 pandemic was also strictly observed by all State legal services authorities (SLSAs) and Delhi state legal services authority (DSLSA) during organisation of daylong event of the Lok Adalat.
A total number of 8152 Benches were constituted by 31 SLSAs to conduct the National Lok Adalat. It was successful in disposing of 10,42,816 cases. Out of the total cases disposed of 5,60,310cases were at the pre-litigation stage and 4,82,506 cases were those which were pending in the courts. The details, as provided by states on NALSA portal, indicate that the settlement amount was nearly ₹3227.99 Cr.
To overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic for settling disputes accessible to various sections of people, the Legal Services Authorities introduced virtual Lok Adalat i.e., E-Lok Adalat in 2020. E-Lok Adalat by leveraging technology which has provided a platform to millions of people to settle their disputes. Till November 2020, around 3,00,200 total cases have been disposed of through the E-Lok Adalats.
IMPROVEMENT WITHIN LOK ADALAT
The jurisdiction of Lok Adalats with respect to criminal disputes is limited to the offences which are compoundable under law. Crimes such as that of petty theft other small crimes were removed from the purview of Lok Adalats. Hence, this should be reviewed to bring petty crimes within the purview of Lok Adalats. The awards passed by the Lok Adalats shall be equivalent to decrees of the civil court and the enforcement of these decrees cannot be carried out by the Lok Adalats. This function rests with the civil courts, therefore the parties need to appear in civil courts for the enforcement enforcement to execute the award. Power to enforce should be provided to the Lok Adalats itself to ensure that the decisions passed are executed to their finality.
In Abdul Hasan and National Legal Services Authority v. Delhi Vidyut Board and others case the Hon’ble Delhi High Court had given a landmark decision highlighting the importance of Lok Adalat movement. In this case the petitioner had filed a writ petition for restoration of electricity at his premises, which was disconnected by the Delhi Vidyut Board on account of non-payment of the Electricity Bill. Inter alia, the grievances of the citizens weren’t only confined to the Delhi Vidyut Board but also directed against the state agencies like Municipal Corporation, DDA, MTNL, GIC and other bodies, Court notices were directed to be issued to NALSA and Delhi State Legal Service Authority. The scholarly observations of His Lordship Mr. Justice Anil Dev Singh deserve special commendations and are worthy of note. He passed the order giving directions for setting up of permanent Lok Adalat.
Lok Adalats had played a major role in ensuring justice in remote areas of India making it possible and practical for the most underprivileged Indians to approach to courts. On February 10th, 2018, Lok Adalats were set up across India and they cleared a record 12 lakhs of cases within a day. During last three years, Regular Lok Adalats had settled 20,00,437 cases and National Lok Adalats had settled 81,55,052 cases pending in high courts and lower courts. 337 Permanent Lok Adalats are currently functioning in various states and UTs. The initiative of establishment of Lok Adalats is indeed a praiseworthy act in advancing the constitutional principles of "Equal access to justice" for all in the country.