PEOPLE’S FORUM: A mobile court in progress in Dhanbad
It’s no secret that we have a massive backlog of cases piled up in our courts across the country. According to a report released by the law ministry in June this year, as many as 3 crore cases are pending in our courts. To make matters worse, the backlog, says the report, is increasing at the rate of 3.4 per cent a year.
Mobile courts, launched in 2007 in Haryana, were supposed to contribute to the process of dispensing justice quickly. And since then, they have been adopted by over 15 states. But this too has not been enough. Many people, especially in the rural areas, were found to lack basic legal awareness, or can’t afford or have access to good legal counsel. So earlier this year, we saw the launch of mobile court version 2.0 — the mobile Lok Adalat.
Says K.K. Sonawane, member secretary, Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority, a body involved with the launch of mobile Lok Adalats in the state, “A large section of our society has no knowledge about its rights owing to illiteracy. Therefore, it is imperative to make them aware of the legal remedies available to them by providing legal services at their doorstep.”
Currently, there are only three mobile Lok Adalats in the country — one each in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and Karnataka. The target is to have a mobile Lok Adalat van in every state by 2011.
The primary difference between a mobile court and a mobile Lok Adalat is how justice is meted out. The mobile court is an extension of the judiciary, and deals with cases just as any other court, except that it’s on wheels. The case is brought before a judge, who hears the two sides, and then hands out a verdict, which finds one side innocent and the other guilty.
Mobile Lok Adalats, on the other hand, fall under the purview of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), an autonomous body set up in 1995. They follow a model based on the old Indian system of justice, where disputes are settled by trying to bring both parties to agree to a solution. Says U. Saradhchandran, member secretary of NALSA, “In a court decision, one person is the winner and the other party the loser. But in a Lok Adalat, both parties are made to see reason. And they are persuaded to reach an amicable settlement.”
This also has a second, and very important, plus point for our judicial system. Since both sides are persuaded to reach a mutual agreement, it effectively prevents one party appealing to a higher court — leading to fewer cases piling up.
That, however, is an incidental plus, according to Saradhchandran. “The main objective is to settle the dispute at the earliest, which obviously helps to reduce the number of pending cases.”
Another advantage is that since the courts go to the villages, it reduces the chances of witnesses giving false evidence, says Manabendra Mandal, executive director, Socio-Legal Aid Research and Training Centre, Calcutta. “If local cases are settled locally, the witnesses would fear to give false testimony, because everybody knows them, and what they did would be generally known to the rest of the village.”
The biggest advantage of mobile Lok Adalats, however, is accessibility. Mandal, who has helped organise Lok Adalats in the past, says that convincing a villager to leave their area to go and settle a dispute far away from their homes is next to impossible. “For instance, women rarely leave their villages, let alone go to a town for a lawyer. Mobile Lok Adalats can solve this problem.”
A mobile Lok Adalat is presided over by a retired or serving judge who is selected by the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) and invited to participate in the programme. The SLSA consults with the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) to work out a complete plan six months in advance. Then, the route of the Lok Adalat van is set and the DLSAs and local administrators are informed as to when and where the van will hold court. At the same time, the presiding district judge arranges for the records of the cases to be sent to the mobile Lok Adalat.
After the schedule is chalked out, it is handed over to the concerned DLSA and Taluka Legal Services Committee, who in turn contact the village panchayats and nearest police stations about the dates, places and time of arrival of the van. Usually, the van sets up court at schools, the panchayat office, fairs and melas, weekly bazaars, marketplaces, and other areas where people are usually expected to gather.
Cases vary from petty criminal matters to civil cases dealing with bank loans, motor vehicle accidents and telephone bill disputes. Disputes are usually settled peacefully. In one instance, the offender was asked to hold his ears and perform 20 squats by way of apology to the plaintiff.
But there are problems with mobile Lok Adalats, especially with their organisation. Experts feel that the entire process is too decentralised, with very little supervision by any authority. For example, so long as the SLSAs do not file a report with NALSA, the latter has no way of knowing what’s going on in a particular state.
Saradhchandran says that there is no active data collection going on either. “We haven’t started collecting data on how many cases have been handled by the mobile Lok Adalats. There is a tendency to mix up mobile Lok Adalat cases with the other Lok Adalats, so we don’t have a real number.”
The third, and by far the biggest problem, is dispensing legal aid. Apart from settling disputes, the mobile Lok Adalats are also expected to spread legal awareness, and provide legal aid to those who cannot afford, or have access to, legal counsel. However, as Mandal points out, those who really need the help of the state legal aid services often do not manage to get them.
So far, though, the mobile Lok Adalats have got a positive response in the states where they have been introduced. In Maharashtra, for example, the lone van has disposed of 3,930 cases from January to July this year.
There are ambitious plans in the works — from setting up legal aid camps in every village, to training paralegals to visit the villages and help sort through the vast pile of cases that could be addressed by a mobile Lok Adalat.
Will the mobile Lok Adalats serve their twin goals of making justice available to the rural populace and reducing the huge backlog of cases in the courts? Time, as they say, will tell.