I recently had the chance to travel to Ahmedabad on a reconnaissance trip to explore the possibility of a certain research project. We wanted to know if Lok Adalat (People’s Court) could be extended in its present scope to serve as a possible recourse for grievance redressal in service delivery cases. In recent years there appears to be a shift towards a rights based framework for service provision, with citizens being able to access state services through an argument of rights and entitlements – the right to food, the right to education, right to employment, and so forth. In this context of rights and entitlements, judiciary would seem a logical forum for citizens to seek redressal for their grievances in accessing these services.
The choice of Gujarat was because it afforded us the possibility of partnering with Research Foundation for Governance in India in Ahmedabad, who have considerable expertise in legal research and advocacy. Gujarat also happens to be a state where Lok Adalats are conducted actively. This is an ongoing exploration, and I managed to get some inputs from Senior Judges in Gujarat on what they felt on the matter. Going forward, we hope to present the case more formally. At this point, from my own witnessing of the processings at the Lok Adalat, and reading around the issues, there are some initial questions that cropped up about merits and constraints of Lok Adalats themselves, which is what this blog post is about. This is also perhaps apt, given the current focus on judicial reforms in India.
Lok Adalats were introduced in India in the early 80s. The main idea behind having them was to improve access to justice at local levels, and ease the burden on the regular courts due to millions of petty cases that clog up their scarce resources, awaiting settlement. Lok Adalats were to provide a speedy, fair and deliberative form of alternative dispute settlement mechanism, drawing on traditional methods of conciliation where the presiding judge – who is an experienced adjudicator with legal acumen and a record of public service – effects an understanding between the claimants, and settles the cases as compromise between the two sides. In most cases claims are for small amounts of money, and relatively minor issues related to traffic accidents, marital disputes, land disputes and so forth. Ordinary courts refer cases to Lok Adalats if they feel the case can be settled through compromise. There is no appeal against the decision reached at Lok Adalat, although if no compromise is reached, the claimants can go back to the courts that referred them there.
I had the opportunity to sit and observe the cases being disposed. While I was sat there, about 15 cases came up – mostly related to Prohibition offences and minor crimes and accidents, and on an average they took about 3-5 minutes each – something that in the normal procedure of regular courts would take much longer, and in worst cases, take years to even come up for hearing. Fines were imposed, compensations were awarded, and compromises reached. They had a target to cover 2000 cases within the day, and seemed well set to reach the target. I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the cases were being dealt. However, there were some larger questions that came up in my mind from my research and from observing it all happening.
Foremost, I was struck by the ‘paternalism’ of the proceedings. Given the general air of obsequiousness in many bureaucratic spaces in India where citizens engage the bureaucrats as supplicants more than as rights-bearing citizens, some amount of paternalism from the officials was expected in the proceedings. But given the absence of advocates in most cases, and absence of appeal against the conclusions reached, it would appear that the discretion given to the judges can be overbearing and coercive, especially if the claimant in question is poor and otherwise disempowered. A compromise is no doubt willingly reached by all parties concerned, but due to the subjective nature of the judge’s discretion, and the general notions of justice on which Lok Adalat is based – rather than juristic legality – unequal power equation between the claimants, or between the claimant and the judge, can raise questions about the ‘fairness’ of the compromise arrived at. This is made more serious by the fact that a case can be transferred to the Lok Adalat if a court judge feels that a compromise can be reached, even if the claimants themselves do not feel so.
To be sure, these are not questions unique to Lok Adalats. Some of the regular courts also suffer from these and other problems. And even if in theory there are problems that can be identified, Lok Adalats have in practice disposed of cases with an efficiency that regular courts will have difficulty matching. But judicial efficiency is not the same thing as justice. And there are studies that show that this is not entirely a theoretical concern (For instance see here and here). Also, one can think of other important ways of ‘disciplining’ our regular courts, which can have substantial results in speeding up the delivery of cases as well. At which point one needs to wonder if availability of alternative dispute settlement avenues like the Lok Adalats could actually be diluting the constituency for these important reforms within our judiciary.
Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative