The principle of Gram Swaraj is based on the idea of “self-governance” or “self-rule” which teaches human beings to be self sufficient by living in peace and harmony and by understanding and respecting the needs and demands of their fellow brethrens.
In dispute resolution, this principle inspires the conflicting parties to resolve their disputes amicably by understanding and respecting the needs and demands of each other. The true aim of the dispute resolution system based on the principle of Gram Swaraj is to unite the parties towards the path of humanity and love for mankind.
Mohandas Gandhi, in his autobiography, had shared an instance wherein he successfully convinced the parties to arbitrate their dispute and, thereafter, successfully convinced the award holder to allow the award debtor to pay the awarded sum in “moderate instalments”, even though the instalments were to run “over a very long period”. Had his client (the award holder) not gotten convinced for such a settlement, the award debtor would be declared bankrupt “and there was an unwritten law among the Porbandar Memans living in South Africa that death should be preferred to bankruptcy.” Gandhi wrote thereafter that “It was more difficult for me to secure this concession of payment by installments than to get the parties to agree to arbitration. But both were happy over the result, and both rose in the public estimation. My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.”
This enshrines the spirit of Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism in India.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (hereinafter ‘ADR’),which stands as an acronym for a variety of dispute resolution methods such as arbitration, mediation, conciliation, Permanent Lok Adalats, etc., complements the formal justice system. The ADR mechanism gives the autonomy to the parties to select the procedure and the dispute resolution method which are best suited to their needs and preferences. This enables them to resolve their disputes more efficiently by avoiding the complexities involved in court adjudication. This means that they will have more freedom, relaxed rules, tailored remedies, speedy resolution, cost-efficient mechanisms, and an improved access to justice.
However, the parties while deciding to resolve their dispute through any mode of ADR face certain difficulties such as uncertainty in the selection of procedures, uncertainty in the selection of an efficient panel of neutrals (arbitrator, conciliator, mediator, etc.), uncertainty in fixing the fee of the panel of neutral(s), difficulty in searching for a proper place of proceeding etc. To overcome these shortcomings, the institutional ADR offers many advantages. The institutional ADR facilitates the process of ADR by equipping the parties with the prerequisites for effective conduction of the proceedings. For example, it provides to the parties a well built-in infrastructure, a panel of specialised and efficient neutral(s), uniform fees, updated rules, and predetermined procedures, among others.
While these institutional advantages can be avail for the ADR methods such as arbitration, mediation, negotiation, etc, in India, the institutional system of Permanent Lok Adalat (hereinafter ‘PLA’) provides for some additional benefits. Moreover, whenever we think about institutional ADR, we mostly think of Arbitration and Mediation. However, we fail to acknowledge that these mechanisms are predominantly of the rich and the corporate. The common man hardly avails justice through these modes of ADR. Thus, the PLA is an ADR institution for justice to the common man. It is cost-efficient, speedy, government-supported, and promises justice to all, irrespective of their economic, social, or other disability.
PERMANENT LOK ADALATS
Permanent Lok Adalats (hereinafter ‘PLAs’) are one of the most effective tools of ADR in India. PLAs are special tribunals established by the National Legal Service Authority (hereinafter ‘NALSA’) or the State Legal Service Authority (hereinafter ‘SLSA’) with a pre-litigation attempt to resolve the disputes related to public utility in a speedy manner by means of compromise. The latest statistics on PLAs available on the NALSA website reveal that currently there are 298 PLAs in the country which had collectively settled 102,625 out of 143,061 cases from April 2018-March 2019, the total settlement value of those touches Rs. 3,870,578,815. Moreover, the pecuniary jurisdiction of the PLA has been increased from Rupees Ten lakhs to Rupees One crore.
Unlike Lok Adalats which can only be called occasionally, PLAs are established institutions. With the aim of fulfilling the constitutional promise of justice to all, in an affordable, efficient and speedy manner, Parliament in 2002 made certain amendments in the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 (hereinafter ‘the Act’), and added Chapter VI-A for pre-litigation conciliation and settlement of the disputes.
This amendment, which gave birth to the system of PLA, was an attempt to further strengthen the system of Lok Adalat in India by institutionalising a forum for compulsory pre-litigation re-conciliation and settlement of disputes related to public utility services such as those related to transport, postal, sanitation, education, dispensary, banking, insurance, housing and real estate, power, light, water, etc.
Further, the unique feature of PLA is that, unlike Lok Adalat, it is a hybrid mechanism of reconciliation and adjudication. In Interglobe Aviation Ltd v. N. Satchidanand, the Supreme Court of India said that the procedural trait of PLA is CON-ARB (that is “conciliation-cum- arbitration”). Further, in Bar Council of India v. Union of India, it was said that PLAs are empowered to decide the dispute on merits upon failure between the parties to arrive at a settlement by the way of conciliation.
This means that PLA has twofold power. First: it has the power to conduct the conciliation proceedings between the parties, taking into consideration the circumstances surrounding the dispute, to help them reach an amicable solution in an impartial, speedy, and independent manner.Second: if during the conciliatory proceedings in action, the panel of neutrals realises that one of the parties is unnecessarily becoming adamant to not settle the dispute, even when there exist possible “elements of settlement” for the parties to sign an ‘agreement of settlement on dispute’, then the PLA also has the power to give a decision in the dispute, provided that the dispute does not relate to any non-compoundable offence.
Therefore, the major advantage of PLA is that even though it is a forum for ADR which primarily aims at resolving disputes consensually, yet it is empowered to give a final and binding decision when one of the parties purposefully gets unwilling to settle a fit case.
Are the awards of PLA appealable?
Every award of PLA is final and binding and “shall not be called into question in any original suit, application or execution proceeding”. Here, one may argue that the appeal of the award of PLA should be possible primarily because (i) the Act expressly doesn’t bar the appeal for the award of PLA whereas it does expressly bar the appeal for the award of Lok Adalat under Section 21(2) of the Act which says that “no appeal shall lie to any court against the award [of Lok Adalat]” and (ii) because PLA can adjudicate a dispute on the merits of the case which opens room for the aggrieved party to move the award in appeal, in contrast to Lok Adalat which only conciliates a dispute and passes award on the consent of the parties, thus, leaving no room for an appeal.
However, the Supreme Court of India refuted these arguments in Bar Council of India(supra), and held that the award of PLA is non-appealable. It further clarified that (i) the right to appeal is not an inherent right but a creation of statute; if a statute doesn’t expressly prohibits the appeal of an award, that by ipso facto doesn’t make an award appealable especially when the text of the statute strongly suggests otherwise; (ii) that PLAs are special tribunals aiming at resolving public utility disputes at the earliest, and hence, to avoid unnecessary prolongation, the right to appeal is absent; (iii) that if at all, a party is aggrieved by the adjudication of PLA, he always has an option to invoke the special and extraordinary jurisdiction of the High Court under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India.
Procedure followed by PLA
The procedure followed by the PLA is in complete resonance with what is required to be followed in any ADR mechanism. The legislation requires that the proceedings in the PLA, both at the time of conciliation between the parties and at the time of deciding a dispute on merit if needed, should be guided by “the principles of natural justice, objectivity, fair play, equity, and other principles of justice.” Moreover, it is required that the PLA should remain impartial and independent while conciliating the parties to reach an amicable solution. Further, as far as procedural applicability is concerned, the PLA is not bound by the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and the Evidence Act, 1872. However, “for the purpose of holding any determination”, the PLA shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 while trying a suit.
While PLA is one of the fastest growing ADR institutions in the country, its jurisdiction to entertain only the matters related to the public utility services needs to be expanded. I suggest that the civil dispute claims such as breach of contract claims, tort claims, equitable claims, traffic rules claims, negotiable instrument claims, etc., must also be put under the purview of PLA. Here, it is noteworthy that according to the 245th Report of the Law Commission of India, the disputes related to negotiable instruments, police and traffic challan, electricity bills, and sanitation are the source of excessive litigation in the country.
The huge backlog of cases only makes justice less accessible. Therefore, to reduce the backlog of cases, and in the interest of speedy justice, it is suggested that such disputes should compulsorily be resolved through PLA.
Further, after regarding the composition of PLA, it is my suggestion that there should be some definite definition of the term persons “having adequate experience in public utility service”. In SN Pandey v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India said that “We do emphasis that the persons who are appointed on the Permanent Lok Adalats should be person of integrity and adequate experience. Appropriate rules, inter alia in this regard, no doubt will have to be framed, if not already in place”. Hence, it is proposed that the Government should notify certain specifications for the appointment of the neutrals in the panel of a PLA.
Lastly, a time-frame needs to be introduced for resolution of disputes in PLAs. Currently, there is no time limit for the resolution of disputes that are filed before PLAs.Therefore, if disputes are left unresolved for a longer period, there will be ambiguity and instances of unchecked discretionary actions by the PLA panels. Hence, to keep alive the spirit of PLA, a time-frame must be defined by the Government.
PLA vis-à-vis International Arbitration Institutions
Whether it can be said that PLA is an Indian model bearing close similarity to international arbitration tribunals?
While there are a few procedural similarities between the PLA and international arbitration institutions, the system of PLA is a unique one. The unique model devised to grant justice to the common man makes PLA stand out in the world from the rest of the ADR institutions.
The PLA charges zero fee for the resolution of disputes. Also, the parties have the option of arguing their case by themselves, thus allowing them to save on the lawyer’s cost. In contrast, resolving a dispute before an international tribunal through any mode of ADR viz. arbitration, mediation, or conciliation is very costly. It involves hefty administration fee, counsel fee, neutrals’ fee (i.e. the fee charged by the panel of arbitrators, mediators, or conciliators as the case may be) among others.
Further, the PLA model is inherently a ‘multi-tier dispute resolution’ model i.e. it first provides conciliation of the dispute, and, if the conciliation fails because of the adamant nature charged with mala fide of one of the parties, then the PLA can even adjudicate the dispute. Whereas, to avail a multi-tier dispute resolution process before an international tribunal, it requires (i) consent of the parties at dispute, (ii) a multi-tier dispute resolution clause, (iii) time, resources, and efforts to defend any challenge related to the existence, validity, invocation, or qualification of the multi-tier dispute resolution clause, and (iv) multiple costs at every tier of the multi-tier dispute resolution.
Furthermore, under the PLA model, the parties do not have to decide anything ‘mutually’ concerning the dispute resolution before entering into any contractual relationship relating to the use of public utility services. PLAs are government institutions which provide CON-ARB form of ADR with pre-defined procedure, rules, composition and qualifications of the panelists, and which are currently located at 298 different ‘places’ in India. A party can unilaterally invoke the jurisdiction of the PLA without the need for any pre-existing dispute resolution agreement. In contrast, the resolution of a dispute before an international tribunal is purely based on ‘party autonomy’ and existence of a valid ‘dispute resolution agreement’. Thus, the parties have to mutually agree upon the form of ADR, its procedure, forum, place, venue, number of arbitrators (or mediators or conciliators as the case may be), subject-matter, etc., before entering into any contractual relationship. This involves a lot of time, effort, and resources both during the drafting of the dispute resolution agreement and thereafter, during defending its ingredients before the tribunal. The system of PLA, therefore, provides an escape route from these complexities and challenges, thus, saving a lot of time, resources and energy of the parties, and ensuring a time-bound resolution of the dispute.
Finally, the subject-matter of disputes before PLAs and international tribunals is largely different. PLAs aim at resolving public utility disputes at the domestic level while the international tribunals function to resolve international/domestic commercial disputes, investor-State treaty disputes, and State-to-State disputes. Both the tribunals, however, share similarity so far as both are (i) institutionalised forum of ADR and (ii) not bound by the domestic rules of evidence and civil procedure.
The advantages of the PLA cannot be compared readily with those of international tribunals. PLA is a forum that provides justice to the common man whereas international tribunals are predominantly of the rich and the corporate.
PLA – the unique hybrid of reconciliation and adjudication in India- is the Indian contribution to the world ADR jurisprudence. The PLA performs the function of promoting and strengthening the principle of “equal access to justice” in the country. It is very popular among the litigants and legal functionaries not only because of its innovative nature and inexpensiveness but also because it serves the common man. The country which is infected with illiteracy, poverty, downtrodden and pendency of cases, PLA is the institutional ADR mechanism progressing towards the attainment of the principle of “Gram Swaraj” and the constitutional promise of justice to everyone at the doorstep.
*IV Year BA LLB (Hons.) student at Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur. Email id: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth 158 (1959).
 Ibid, 158-59 (1959).
See also, National Legal Service Authority, Lok Adalat: Permanent Lok Adalat, National Legal Service Authority of India (May 02, 2020, 02:25 Am), https://nalsa.gov.in/lok-adalat.
 (2011) 7 SCC 463
 (2012) 8 SCC 243
 S.N. Pandey v. Union of India, (2012) 8 SCC 261
 P.T. Thomas v. Thomas Job, (2005) 6 SCC 478
 (2012) 8 SCC 243
 Bar Council of India v. Union of India, (2012) 8 SCC 243
See also, Bar Council of India v. Union of India (2012) 8 SCC 243.
 (2012) 8 SCC 261
 SN Pandey v. Union of India, (2012) 8 SCC 261
 National Legal Service Authority, Lok Adalat, National Legal Service Authority of India (May 04, 2020), https://nalsa.gov.in/lok-adalat.