Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Permanent Lok Adalats for Alternate Resolution of Disputes in Public Utility Services

This article was researched and written by Chandrakanth R. Terupally and edited by Santoshi Pattem.

While RTI lays bare the abuse of resources, Permanent Lok Adalats can utilize this information to obtain speedy justice to those who are denied their rightful share. Permanent Lok Adalat services, which promise a cost-free dispute resolution within two months, have great potential for being used along with RTI to bring to book the wrongdoers committing ill practices in public utility services.

The concept of Lok Adalat, literally people’s court, is as old as our culture itself. ‘Nyayapanch’ used to be a people’s body for dispute settlement before the advent of courts. Lok Adalat institutionalizes the traditional Nyayapanch by providing a platform for friendly dispute settlement as an alternate option to courts. Focusing on speedy and no-cost delivery of justice without the formalities of court and legalities, Lok Adalats have proven to be very effective alternative to courts ever since their inception in 1986.

Wide acceptance of Lok Adalats encouraged the law ministry to bring about certain amendments that reinforced the alternate redressal mechanism. In 2002 Legal Services Authorities Act (1987) was revised to establish Permanent Lok Adalats for hearing grievances involving public utility services (PUS). A PUS is any organization that maintains infrastructure for public service, for example, a transport service meant for passengers/goods, a postal/telegraph/telephone service, a power/water supply board, a system of public conservancy/sanitation, a hospital/dispensary, banking/financial institutions or an insurance service. Concerning these any dispute related to deficiency of service, claims of compensation, recovery of money, etc. can be settled by PLAs.

Permanent Lok Adalat consists of a working judicial officer and two members from a government appointed panel of subject experts with good experience in public utility services. An application has to be made to the Permanent Lok Adalat (PLA) by a disputing party. The precondition is that the dispute should not have been taken to any other court previously. Once an application is made to a PLA, neither party can opt for a court for the same dispute. There is no application or court fee for dispute settlement by a PLA. The four reasons - guaranteed settlement, fast pace of proceedings, zero court fee and unchallengeable justice make PLAs indispensably attractive to people and a preferred option to courts. Individuals (or a group of individuals) in dispute can optionally engage an advocate arguing on their behalf. An award is made either on merit or as a settlement. The award is transmitted to a local civil court, which executes the award as final and compulsory on all parties without any scope for an appeal. This is in contrast to regular Lok Adalats where either party can resort to a civil court for an appeal when no compromise is reached. Permanent Lok Adalats meet this serious shortcoming of Lok Adalats, in which the entire process becomes fruitless when one party refuses to a compromise formula.

PLAs have jurisdiction over all matters except those involving criminal offences (that justify a jail-term) or those with value of property in dispute exceeding 10 lakhs. Territorial jurisdiction is limited to the respective district a PLA functions in. Every case is settled as fast as possible usually within 60 days from the date of application. In its first year of operation (since June 2007), Permanent Lok Adalat, Hyderabad received 10,123 cases of which 3095 were settled, awarding compensations worth 6.7 crores. 

Permanent Lok Adalats for Public Utility Services were first established in Andhra Pradesh in March 2007. Six Permanent Lok Adalats have been set up at Hyderabad, Karimnagar, Kadapa, Chittoor, Guntur, Visakhapatnam. Nine more are in the process of establishment and all 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh, in course of time, will have Permanent Lok Adalats for public utility services.

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