Both these aspects have been blended judiciously in the institution of Lok Adalat as envisaged by Sections 19(1) and 20(4) of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. Judicial officers are integral part forming the composition of Lok Adalat and the principles of justice, equity and fair play are the guiding factors for decision based on compromises to be arrived at before such Adalats.
The Lok Adalat is mainly concerned with two-fold functions. Firstly, it provides people a quick, easy, accessible, non-technical sympathetic and homely forum for resolution of their disputes and, secondly, it tackles the menace of what is known as ‘docket explosion’ i.e., piling number of pending cases which become unmanageable for the regular courts to handle effectively.
The credit of originating this system for speedy justice to common man goes to Mr. Justice P. N. Bhagwati, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who started Lok Adalats in the State of Gujarat during early seventies. This was followed by the States of Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Union Territory of Delhi, etc. which introduced Lok Adalats for urban and rural areas.
These Adalats decide criminal, civil and revenue cases pending before the law courts by mutual consent of the parties. Without going into the procedural details of the working of Lok Adalat, suffice it to say that it has made substantial contribution in taking justice to doors of common man and providing him speedy justice. On the criminal side, the offences compoundable under Section 320 (1) and (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 are disposed of by the Lok Adalat through a compromise between the parties.
Section 20(1) of the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 lays down that a Court of law where a case is pending may transfer the case to Lok Adalat for settlement when the parties to the case have made a joint application indicating their intention to compromise the matter. Thus, the section requires parties to apply before District Authority and not Lok Adalat.
The parties to such a case shall be under no obligation to attend the court concerned during the period intervening between the filing of the joint application and disposal of the case by the Lok Adalat. However, the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, as amended by the Amending Act of 2002 now enables parties to file their case in Lok Adalat directly, if they so desire.
In Madhya Pradesh, the first Lok Adalat was held at Bilaspur on April 13, 1986 and out of the total 797 cases disposed of by this Adalat as many as 226 were criminal cases. In all about one hundred and eighty three Lok Adalats have been organised in the State upto January 2006 each disposing of nearly 260 criminal cases on an average. It is thus evident that the institution of Lok Adalat is expected to play a crucial role in the administration of criminal justice in time to come.
More recently, Lok Adalats are being arranged inside the prison institutions for providing undertrial prisoner’s access to speedy justice. This is indeed a step in the right direction which will help considerably in reducing the number of undertrial prisoners who are languishing in different jails for several years.
Lok Adalats are now having a statutory foundation. Supreme Court has reiterated time and again that speedy justice specially in criminal matters, is the essential component of the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in Art. 21 of the Constitution of India.
The procedure of Lok Adalat inherently embodies the concept of speedy trial and it can be seen as one of the most efficacious legal instruments of upholding speedy justice. Widening the criminal jurisdiction of Lok Adalats would therefore, be a significant step in the direction of fulfilment of the constitutional mandate contained in Article 21.