I am in search of real Lok Adalats as they originated in Gujarat from the most sensitive heart of late Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, M P Thakkar, who also served the Supreme Court as its judge. Like him many of us expected Lok Adalats to grow and develop into temples of justice. Sadly, this is not seen anywhere in India as they are failing. Not that they are dead, but as it happens in India with other institutions, they have suffered total metamorphosis into something completely different, distorted and perverted.

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 •  Printer friendly version Unfortunately we missed a great opportunity to develop purely, indigenous people's courts of justice, based upon the ideals of our Constitution, namely democracy, liberty, equality, justice, fraternity and human dignity in furtherance of our Constitution's "commitment to socio-economic revolution" (Granville Austin). The well-entrenched system of vested interests extending upto careerist legal professionals, mainly money minting lawyers and reactionary socio-economic forces, who co-opted emerging Lok Adalats to serve their narrow interests. As a result 'We, the People of India', remained where we were - trapped, alienated, impersonal, remote, narrowly divided and dominated by a system of administration of justice in which justice-seeking people are the only 'outsiders'.

Genesis of Lok Adalat

The Lok Adalat really originated from the failure of the established legal and juridical system to provide effective, fast, and inexpensive justice with the litigant at the centre, particularly the huge arrears of cases which took extraordinarily long time for disposal. In most of the cases, common people were waiting for justice - many a times simply for the conclusion of the case, not for justice. Again plethora of appeals, revisions, reviews, and the end product is either victory or defeat of one of the parties, but not satisfactory and just resolution of the dispute.

Public hearing in environmental projects was accepted by law and now people's right to information has become a very important instrument for the people in the affairs of the nation.

 •  The ideas of the Indians
 •  Criminal justice reforms

The late Justice Thakkar could not bear the sight of waiting and begging workers, widows, landless labourers, Dalits or Adivasis cherishing hope for justice howsoever faint it could be. The first Lok Adalat was held in Junagadh with great preparation and remarkable simplicity. It was a great success and the idea picked up and led to a number of Lok Adalats with the help of a select and sensitised group of advocates and at different places. At many of them the atmosphere was charged with enthusiasm, and missionary zeal. In one Lok Adalat in north Gujarat, when the judges-cum-lawyers asked an ordinary litigant, "What is your problem?" The man with fears in his eyes said, "For the first time in five years, somebody has asked me about my case."

Many of us saw in this small incident the potential of Lok Adalats to grow into genuine Justice-Courts of the people and for the people. The sole guiding principle of Justice Thakkar was to turn Lok Adalats into "less expensive, less speculative, less glamourised, more participatory, more resolutions oriented or dispute solving mechanisms that work to serve the purpose of justice with humanity in mind".

A novel and exciting idea

In one sense, we in India had some kind of village community or caste panchayats or Adalats where local disputes were sought to be resolved. The problem was that they were nyaya panchayats (caste/community panchayats) or village panchayats operating within the rigid framework of the unjust, inequitable, hierarchical caste-system, where justice among equals was possible, but not justice between unequal opponents. Equality before law was absent. On the other hand when the British established their own judicial system with independent courts and lawyers, its "equality before law" did please the lower castes and lower ranks. It had a revolutionary germ, namely, even a Dalit can file a case against Brahmin.

But this was only a mirage. The social structure did affect the system and could not translate formal equality before law into substantial and real equality. The dominant sections and the lawyers hijacked the institution. Moreover, the system was so remote from the social reality and people's own world that it remained a totally alienated and impersonal system. It used to be said that a person who could not tell lies before his neighbours and relatives can shamelessly tell lies in a court of law even under oath. The English courts finally became the courts of the few and for the few, where the goddess of justice had unequal scales. The system centred around professional judges and skilled lawyers where the litigants were only the passive consumers and recipients of whatever justice could trickle down.

As against this, we could see in the Lok Adalats - as they originally started working - their inner potential of overcoming the limitations of both traditional and British systems. They might bring back centre-stage the common people seeking justice, and deliver justice to the satisfaction of both parties, given the help of sensitive judges and caring lawyers. We did not consider Lok Adalats as only a way out of the arrears of cases, but much more than that i.e. as genuine people's tribunals - independent, impartial, participatory and more justice-oriented that aimed at resolving disputes as far as possible.


After a few successful Lok Adalats, the process of distortion started. The very same vested legal interests, both among judges and the lawyers, started smelling something threatening the system they had created for themselves and their careers. They did not openly oppose it but toyed with the idea of using it to their advantages.

Firstly, the Lok Adalats were found useful for reducing the burden of arrears of cases with great ease and without additional burden upon them. Secondly, to show the good performance and success of Lok Adalats, pending cases which were likely to be settled or compromised were kept pending and assigned to be placed before the Lok Adalat. Thus, a game of numbers was set off. Thirdly, Lok Adalats came to be used by judges at all levels for self-image-boosting and career advancement by extravagant publicity and fanfare. The simple puri-subji or khichdi-chhash gave way to multi-cuisine dishes. Fourthly, the lawyers who have already received their fees fully looked upon Lok Adalats as a method of disposing of cases no longer useful for them.

Fifthly, the Lok Adalats that were meant to bring about resolution of dispute on the basis of equality, fairness, justice and give-and-take deteriorated in course of time into some kind of invisible, coercive agencies for brining undue public pressure, particularly pressure from the lawyers, judges, and the social workers present in the Lok Adalats for settlement despite its being unfair, unjust and calling for one sided sacrifice. Sixthly, the same unjust, unequal, authoritarian and hierarchical socio-economic structure of our society which was responsible for distorting the established justice delivery system engulfed the new system of Lok Adalats with the result that the poor, weak, needy and deserving side started losing their just fight to the advantage of rich, affluent, powerful and well off sections.

Thus, the haves could have their way over have-nots. The former could purchase injustice at a low cost and with impunity. Thus, Lok Adalats also met the same fate as had happened to many other well-meaning institutions. Many times, good institutions die before their actual arrival and others die on arrival as they slowly undergo a decaying process or metamorphosis and grow into something totally different with different and opposite fuctions.

Vested interests' game

Lok Adalats originated from nobler purposes and for serving the cause of justice and bringing it to the door of the people. But the concept was never fully examined and was allowed to grow haphazardly and on an ad hoc basis. Nobody tried seriously to put it in a larger and proper historical and socio-political context.

How should we look at the very concept of Lok Adalat - merely as a byproduct of the failure of our judicial system, or as a simple device to dispose of the heaps of cases pending for years in our courts, or as an alternative justice-delivery system to be imposed from above? If this is so, it was bound to fail or falter sooner or later. It could not develop simply as an adjunct of the present system of administration of justice centering around passive judges and controlled by aggressively expensive lawyers. Except Justice Thakkar, and few other judges, and a few committed lawyers, others - lawyers and judges - did not take Lok Adalats seriously. In fact, they looked down on them, and ridiculed or laughed at them. Many reluctantly joined and soon they discovered how this could serve their professional purpose. The spirit of the institution disappeared, its idealism evaporated; only form remained along side its professional utility.

The Lok Adalats, as conceived and perceived by late Justice Thakkar could not take deep roots in the soil. It did not become part of natural ethos, part of living law. It was never accepted by the judges and lawyers as essential part of their true functions as persons entrusted to take forward the cause of justice and fairplay in the society.

How to look at Lok Adalats?

The institution of Lok Adalat should be understood in the context of the evolution of our polity. As we have seen, we did have our own system of local and royal justice, with all its imperfections, injustices, and inadequacies. Aa a brooding sense of injustice is omnipresent in every human being, every society recognises forms of injustices and evolves its own methods of doing justice, always influenced and controlled by powerful interests. Still it had it roots in the society. The British system, even though based upon liberal concept of rule of law and equality before law, has merely remained an alien system for the vast majority of our people. It never became a part of their day-to-day life. The people by and large did have neither resources nor energy to use these courts and mostly were dragged into courts as victims or defendants. The courts and the law were for the people, not of the people.

It was the freedom movement which gave us the new ideals of liberty, equality, justice, dignity, fraternity and democracy and which finally culminated in our Constitution in 1950. Its preamble, its democratic institutions, its ideals, Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles constitute our "nation's conscience" and stood for our commitment to socio-economic revolution. Our basic institutions - Parliament, Legislature and Executive - were moving towards people's participation through adult franchise and free elections. The 73rd and 74th Amendments adopted the Panchayati Raj institutions that were based upon principles of decentralisation of power and participatory democracy.

The Supreme Court took one very important step forward by evolving relaxed locus standi and opened the gates of justice for the large section of invisible and inaudible people through Public Interest Litigation - a new participatory institution. A new concept of preventive and remedial legal services came to be recognised and adopted. Public hearing in environmental projects was accepted by law, and now the people's right to information has become a very important instrument for the people in the affairs of the nation.

Lok Adalats ought to have been understood, accepted and evolved in this direction - as participatory people's courts or centres of justice with the best features of people's participation and people's perception and of independent, fair and equal justice. They could and should have become a part of the process of humanisation, emancipation and democratisation of law and justice. Of course this required clear vision, perception, insight and foresight, leadership, commitment, courage and strength of conviction and firm determination to fight against all odds and vested interests. This was not to be, and as it happened with most of our Constitutional institutions, it also overtook Lok Adalats.

Is there no hope?

We cannot afford to give up hope. The process of humanisation and democratisation is always slow and has to undergo ups and downs. The question is of rendering justice to the members of society, and every society has to arrange for protecting rights, preventing or promoting wrongs and for settling or resolving disputes, both individual and collective. It is for one of these principal reasons for which state as a political institution came into being and if it ceases to discharge that function or fails in this, it ceases to be a state.

Many times, good institutions die before their actual arrival and others die on arrival as they slowly undergo a decaying process or metamorphosis and grow into something totally different with different and opposite functions.

 •  The ideas of the Indians
 •  Criminal justice reforms

Of course, justice through state courts is not the only way. In every society there are a number of conflict-resolving or dispute-settling systems or modes for justice, and it is generally well recognised that resort to a court of law should be the last one. Social resolution of disputes is generally preferable to official resolution because it is more socially acceptable and does not ordinarily leave behind bitterness. It can also be preventive. Lok Adalats must be considered as one of the agencies in this wide social context, not merely as an appendage to or corrective of the present system.

Lok Adalats, if properly conceived and thoughtfully designed, have many advantages over the established courts. They combine both lawmen and lawyers. They are less formalised, less expensive, more purposeful and directly committed to real long term justice. The litigating people have greater scope for participation in the satisfactory resolution of their disputes. Lok Adalats can thus perform different functions depending upon different factors. They can pre-empt and remove the causes of the likely disputes with the assistance of auxiliary people's centres which can constantly be vigilant, and sense or detect possible areas of conflict or can encourage people to bring their possible or likely disputes before them. They can also act simultaneously as conciliators, mediators, arbitrators or adjudicators as per the requirements. One special advantage is that their decision will be made easily acceptable and smoothly enforceable.

These Lok Adalats will be and can be indigenous and people's court or tribunal originating or drawing inspiration from the people - not remote, alienated, impersonal, formalistic and legalistic. Like language, law and its courts must reflect the volkgeist - the spirit of the people - not because this is always just and righteous, but because it is closer to the law of life. The absence of this was the bane of the English system in India, which remained largely an urban and elitist institution for the few, while the common people continued to live and resolve problems in their own ways. Lok Adalat can combine both traditionality of the modern and modernity of the tradition.

The modern world of globalisation is in search of different alternative disputes-settlement methods for its trade, business and industries, and Indian lawyers and judges are in a hurry, as if they were evolving or creating original methods for the people. They do not know - or pretend not to know - that they are really trying to meet the rising and urgent demands and needs of a globalised capitalism. There is nothing wrong in this, but the search and zeal for effective and genuine people's tribunals or fora for people's problems must also go on simultaneously. Here there is an opportunity for a strong movement and campaign for Lok Adalats. Such Lok Adalats will have roots in the soil, easily accessible and acceptable to the people. They can perform different roles - preventive, negotiating, bargaining, compromising and resolving. They must retain and preserve the basic feature of impartial, just and fair system of justice, with popular participation, but not diverted or distorted by populism or guided or controlled by powerful vested interests of the society at the local level.

What ought to be done?

The task is not very easy. Its challenge has to be accepted. But we cannot afford to give up the idea. We should start at both the ends. One, the pending cases in different courts can be sorted out and those cases touching the essential needs of the people should be our focus. To resolve them, we should build up a good team of lawyers, judges and social workers who understand the social dynamics and who can withstand the pressure from the stronger elements of society. We must orient them towards seeking demystification of law, so that they start understanding that essence of law is substantively equal treatment and justice. At the other end we should start at the grassroot level, and build up an organised group of easily available law-men and others, who live and work in the midst of the people and who can provide preventive legal services to the needy, particularly the poor and the weak.

We should start at the grass-root level, build up an organised group of easily available lawmen and others, who live and work in the midst of the people and who can provide preventive legal services to the needy, particularly the poor and the weak.

 •  The ideas of the Indians
 •  Criminal justice reforms

The idea is to root out the initial causes of trouble and disputes and resolve them at the earliest. This requires a totally new approach. The 21st century is considered as the century for human rights and human developments. The basic principle is people's participation and people's control in all spheres. This must also include the sphere of law, lawyers and judges. Law cannot be allowed to be too much sophisticated, learned and intricate, or even scientific, otherwise it will be only a lifeless machine to be used and abused at will. Lawyers and judges cannot be mere black-letter men looking upon law as only an exercise in logic and not in life.

There is nothing new and surprising in this. What was after all the jury system in criminal cases and even in civil cases? The spirit underlying this must pervade and permeate the entire juridical system. It is definitely a long term project and there are no short cuts. We must start with our law colleges and with our legal education. We must aim at producing and training lawyers and judges for radical people-orientated transformation of our justice-delivery system. In course of time Lok Adalats as projected here will take deep roots in the soil and will be accepted as the foundation of our judicial system. Only then courts of law will become courts of the people - integral part of people's social life.

This will be a very challenging task - to create people's institutions with the active cooperation and support of the people. We must also remember that this will be seriously resisted by the established profession, as it is rightly said "every profession is a conspiracy against lay people". We must be on constant guard to ensure that the new institutions are not hijacked by the judges and lawyers for their self interest. It is necessary that these institutions grow from the bottom and not from the top and for this a strong people's movement demanding the people and justice-centered system of administration of justice is necessary.

We do require trained judges and trained lawyers, not as benefactors or commanders but as people's servants and equal participants with those seeking justice. These local and decentralised institutions working with and in the midst of the people and with openness, fairness and transparency are the only effective answers to the ideological hegemony of capitalism and globalisation controlled by giant national and multinational corporates. We must strive to make latter subordinate and subservient to the demands of dignified life of the common people in every nook and corner of the country. Are we prepared to accept this challenge?