(Success story of LOK ADALATS in Punjab)

Maneesh Chibber

Consider this: You have a case, that has been hanging fire for the last many years with no decision in sight. Despite spending money and time, your case is nowhere near end. Even if you do win, there is always the possibility, a very strong one, that your opponent would appeal in the next high court.

Suddenly you hear of this adalat, where your case will be settled to the best of your satisfaction in a matter of hours. And, you don't even need the expensive services of a lawyer to argue your case. During the last year (2004-05) alone, as many as 16,181 pending cases were amicably settled at such adalats, with a whopping Rs.75.21 crore being handed out, most of it on the spot as compensation. Welcome to the world of Lok Adalats. Here justice is swift, inexpensive, almost hassle-proof and there is no need to wait for weeks for the final judgement, for a copy of the judgement is provided at the end of the day's proceedings. The best part is: since the cases are resolved amicably in the presence of all the litigating parties, there are very few, if any, appeals against the decisions.

Lok Adalats, particularly Special Lok Adalats, have evolved into a judiciary-lawyer-public-government collaboration. What otherwise can explain the fact that Sikh religious Organizations organized a langar for over 15,000 people at Amritsar on February 5. Or that the devotees of Gurdwara Sangatpura, Gurdaspur, and Sant Baba Hari Singhji Bathwale jointly arranged lunch for over 5,000 persons, who had come to the district courts complex, Gurdaspur, on February 25 for the Special Lok Adalat. The Lok Adalat, which is part of the alternate dispute redressal system envisaged by the legislature, executive and the judiciary, is here to stay. As Mr. Justice Y. K. Sabharwal, Chief Justice of India, told mediapersons in Chandigarh on February 4, "I do not have a magic wand to unilaterally deal with the problem of the huge number of pending cases. Alternate solutions like arbitration on Lok Adalats will have to be considered and popularized."

As the Indian judicial system crumbles under the cases that pile up coupled with shortage of judges, lok adalats have carved out a niche for themselves. It is time and cost factors that work to the advantage of these people's courts.

The difference between the work being done by Lok Adalats and the regular courts becomes much more marked if one takes into account the number of cases settled at various lok adalats lin Punjab alone during the last few years and compares them to the corresponding figures for those settled by regular courts. In Punjab, the Punjab Legal Services Authority, functioning under the direct supervision of a sitting Punjab and Haryana High Court Judge, Mr. Justice H. S. Bedi, overseas the organization of Lok Adalats. The amount of work that is done in a single day at a special lok adalat is much more than what is achieved in a year by all the courts in a district put together", says a leading lawyer.

At a special Lok Adalat organized recently at Amritsar, of the total 23,781 cases that were put up before the 97 specially constituted Benches all headed by judicial/revenue officers 13,467 were settled, meaning a success rate of almost 57 per cent.

"Actually, even we were initially surprised by the response of the litigants. I feel everybody, including the lawyers, has come round to the opinion that Lok Adalats are a very useful medium to settle pending cases amicably. This also does not lead to any kind of bad blood as in a majority of cases, the settlement is done on mutually agreeable terms. The judicial officers are only there to assist the litigants arrive at a settlement", remarks Mr. Justice H. S. Bedi..

Egged on by the success of the Lok Adalats being organized by it, the PLSA has also been increasing the frequency and number of Lok Adalats every year. From just five Lok Adalats and 4,195 cases taken up in 1990-91, the current financial year (2005-06) could see almost 400 Lok Adalats being organized and over 1.5 lakh cases being taken up for settlement.

The type of cases that are now being brought before Lok Adalats for settlement is also changing. From simple petty matters such as traffic challans and minor disputes, Lok Adalats are now routinely taking up and settling cases pertaining to the Hindu Marriage Act, motor accident claims, complaints under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act( cheque bounce cases, etc), civil suits, loan recovery matters of banks, pre-litigative and pending suits. "Cases pending for years which would have ordinarily dragged on for many more years are settled within no time. The appeal against the orders of a Lok Adalat lies only with the High Court. This means less litigation.

Take divorce cases. Every divorce matter that is amicably settled at a Lok Adalat means at least five less cases in the future. Since every aspect of the divorce, including financial terms, alimony, child support, etc., is resolved to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned, there remains no need for further litigation", notes H.P.S. Mahal, Member-Secretary, PLSA.

The best comment on the effectiveness of the Lok Adalats comes from Chanesar Sab, a poor, semi-literate migrant labourer from Bihar, whose only son was killed in 2003 in an accident. Walking on the roadside, his 18 year old son was hit from behind by a rashly driven Tata Sumo whose driver was found drunk. Not satisfied with the amount of compensation being offered by the company which had insured the Tata Sumo Chanesar filed a case. After countless dates for hearing, most of them resulting in simple adjournment, Chanesar's plea was settled in less than two hours at a Special Lok Adalat at Gurdaspur on February 25. Not only was the case settled, Chanesar and his wife were even handed out a cheque for Rs. 3 lakh by the insurance company on settlement.

"We were running out of money and patience due to prolonged litigation, which was refusing to end. Then, we were told about this adalat. And, I am happy we came here with our case. Now, we can finally return to our village", Chanesar told The Tribune.

Fully supporting the concept of Lok Adalats, leading criminal lawyer and Advocate-General of Punjab, Rajinder Singh Cheema, feels the utility of lok adalats will only increase with the passage of time. "Considering the backlog of cases in our courts and the fact that there exist a huge number of vacancies in the courts at various levels, lok adalats have emerged as the answer to the mounting backlog of cases", he remarks.

July-September 2006