Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in 2015 asked law universities to conduct research on Lok Adalats and come up with suggestions to fulfill the government’s mission of ‘sabka nyay’ – justice for all. But a research project analysing the functioning of Lok Adalats in four states – Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand – shows why instituting any judicial reform in India will remain a challenge.
It’s because of the abysmal quality of judicial data available in India.
This is a generally accepted fact within India’s research community. The Law Commission of India, while dealing with the issue of pendency of cases, has also commented on the need to institute better data collection and data management methods. The problem is two folds. First, the quantum and range of data that judicial institutions provide are limited. Second, even when the data is available, its structure and form are unfriendly and often full of errors and inconsistencies. Both these problems are glaringly visible in relation to Lok Adalat data in the four eastern states.
It is always essential to look at the story behind the numbers, which is often more nuanced. It is not enough to report that a certain number of cases have been disposed of through Lok Adalats, it is also important to go beyond the gross number. What is the distribution of disposal across different categories of cases? How many cases were in the pre-litigation and post-litigation stages? What is the proportion of disposal from each district in a state? What is the pattern of disposal across a year – are the numbers because of singular efforts on designated occasions or are they the product of a more organic endeavour?
Such an analysis reveals more about the structural adjustments, which might be necessary. Unfortunately, the data management practices in our judicial institutions hamper such analysis. In these four states, a scrutiny of the Lok Adalat disposal records of three years (1 July 2012 to 31 July 2015) is representative of the larger reality concerning judicial data in India.
SLSAs don’t have data
As nodal administrators of Lok Adalats at the state level, State Legal Services Authorities (SLSA) are expected to possess all relevant data and documents. None of the SLSAs in all four states were in a position to share monthly or annual district-wise disposal records.
Most SLSAs (Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar) were not able to share the number of Lok Adalats that were organised at various levels (state, district, taluk) in the three-year period in question. For West Bengal, the data only mentioned the total number of Lok Adalats without specifying the number at each level.
Only the SLSAs in Odisha and Jharkhand were able to give separate numbers for pre-litigation and post-litigation cases. SLSAs in Odisha and Jharkhand were also the only ones which separated disposals through National Lok Adalats (NLAs) from disposals through state-level, district-level, and taluk-level Lok Adalats. NLAs are organised by the National Legal Services Authorities and the state-level authorities are involved in its implementation but not in setting the agenda.
For Bihar, data was not available even about the different categories of cases (bank recovery, revenue matters, cheque bounce matters, etc.).
Missing out on crucial insight
When a case is pending in a court, it can be referred for disposal through Lok Adalats in three ways. First, both parties agree for the matter to be referred to a Lok Adalat. Second, one party submits an application and the court, upon being satisfied that there are chances of settlement, refers the matter. Third, the court refers it if it is sure a Lok Adalat can take cognizance of the matter.
Data on the manner in which the case has been referred to the Lok Adalat can be extremely useful. It can provide insight into the type of cases where people are voluntarily opting for Lok Adalats. It can improve our understanding of litigant behaviour and assist in developing strategies to popularise Lok Adalats among the target groups. It can help us analyse the type of cases where judges are exercising their discretion to refer matters to Lok Adalats. This, in turn, can facilitate development of appropriate norms and guidelines for the exercise of such discretion in different kinds of cases. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no data available on this. Most likely, to the leadership in the judiciary, this has not appeared as data even worth collecting.
Way out for Indian judiciary
It would be easy but wrong to merely blame the SLSAs and other legal services authorities for this sorry state of affairs. More often than not, they are understaffed, overworked, and do not have access to sufficient technical tools.
Officers also lack adequate technical training to properly supervise data collection and data maintenance practices. Judges as such are not used to research at a systemic level and thus are not always best placed to design a meaningful data matrix. Most importantly, they are part of a system that does not value data, at least not in an adequately refined sense.
The most obvious symptom of this disregard for data is reflected in the continued insistence that increasing the number of judges would solve the issue of pendency even though such an understanding is not based on any proper empirical enquiry. Instead of filling up vacancies, which would address the issue of pendency much more definitively, we end up increasing the number of judges in the Supreme Court.
Sooner or later, the Indian judiciary will need to walk out of the Middle Ages and commit itself to becoming a democratic institution of the 21st century. That is not going to happen when we are stuck with data that is archaic in its structure and shallow in its contents.
The author is Fulbright Post-Doctoral Research Scholar, Harvard Law School. Views are personal.