Justice on Wheels: An Addition to the Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008
Lack of access to justice has shown itself to be, time and again, the most recurrent issue in each and every discourse on Judicial Reforms. Justice, as seen in its current form is often characterized as something for the rich and privileged because it is not as accessible to the poor, as it is to the rich. It is often shown to be a cruelly slow process of constant adjournments and dates, which more often than not, deters potential litigants to approach the court. The fact that 3.79 crore cases are pending in district and subordinate courts as of November 2021serves as a testament to the ill health of the judicial system of the country.
In order to address the said issue, there arose a need for a legislature to categorically focus on cases, which could remove the burden from the end of the judiciary. This would involve cases that are high in number but do not require as many days to be adjudicated upon. It gave birth to the need for a system of adjudication of petty disputes and crimes, which ideally could have been solved outside of court or within limited dates. This precise gap was intended to be filled by The Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008 (“The Act”).
Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008: The Intended Panacea
The Act was recommended by the Law Commission of India in its 114th report and was enacted for quick and easy access to the court system in India. The functioning of these courts is simple so as to enable the common masses and the rural people to partake in court proceedings. The Nyayadhikaris, who presides the Gram Nyayalaya are appointed by the respective state governments in consultation with the High Court. The basic requirement is an academic qualification with a maximum age limit of 45 years at appointment.
In terms of jurisdiction, it may include certain offenses under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 like criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly and furnishing false information, etc. Focusing on resolving disputes through reconciliation, conciliators are also appointed to facilitate the process of settlements. The importance of this measure was also reiterated by the Supreme Court in 2020 in the case of National Federation of Societies for Fast Justice and Others v. Union of India (“NFSFJ”) wherein it reminded the High Courts to expedite the start of the consultation process with the respective state governments for the setting up of such courts in all districts.
The issue arises from the ill-usage of the budgetary allocation on the part of the government and its inability to implement the Act in a befitting manner. The government of India has allocated a total cost of ₹9000 crores out of which the Central share includes an approved outlay of Rs.5357 crores for five years from 01.04.2021 to 31.03.2026. Although the funds allude towards a vociferous implementation of the Act, statistics in reality paint a contrary picture. There is a serious issue with regard to complying with the targets propounded in the Act.
The above-stated case led to the revelation that only 320 Gram Nyayalayashad been notified and that too only by 11 of the state governments. It is pertinent to note here that as per NFSFJ, the target was pegged to be at 2,500 Gram Nyayalayaswhich were to be constructed by the conclusion of the 12th five-year plan period in 2017. Worse yet, just 204 Gram Nyayalayas were operational in India as of September 2019. This shows that just above 8% of the estimated Gram Nyayalayasare functional. In the last decade or so, 18 states have chosen not to notify any Gram Nyayalayas at all.
Even as of 2020, out of the total, only 12 states have notified a total of 395 Gram Nyayalayas. This shows that even though the allocation of funds is present, it is the priority list, wherein Gram Nyayalayas have failed to make a place, for the government. A secondary reason for the same would be the lack of awareness on the part of the litigants, due to the fact that quite a lot of them are illiterate, uneducated, and restricted in terms of access to resources which would have led them to justice.
Justice on Wheels: Final Piece of the Puzzle
In order to address the above-explained void, a scheme was implemented in some Indian states like Jharkhand, Haryana, Pune, etc. This scheme is popularly known as ‘Justice on Wheels’(“JoW”). This measure, which was first implemented in the Philippines in the year 2004, works on the concept of a mobile court mechanism, modeled after a program developed in Guatemala. It essentially, as the name suggests, brings mobile courts to areas that are in need of adequate and inexpensive access to justice.
A Mobile court may constitute an actual bus carrying the court bench along with the staff members going to various localities to give out verdicts for cases or settle them accordingly. Its jurisdiction mostly involves cases that deal with crimes of a minor, and petty nature like small thefts, shouting slogans, etc. which do not involve moral turpitude, cheating, misappropriation apart from matters which could be resolved by ways of conciliation, compromise, or plea bargains. It had proved to be a major success in the Philippines as it had enabled the release of 2,513 inmates, mediated 5,361 cases, and gave free legal assistance to 1,103 detainees as of the end of 2009.
This initiative was also brought to India, for the first time in 2007 by the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana Justice Virender Jain bearing the ideology that the cost of taking justice to litigants in rural remote areas lies on the government. In its maiden attempt, a total of 2,234 cases were disposed of which pertained to marital disputes, theft, robbery, etc. in the Mewat District of Haryana. As of 2016, it has been successfully tested in about 15 states with one of the latest examples being of Pune, which heard a total of 2,076 cases in 2018 which was twice the number of cases heard in 2016.
The modalities of this initiative are synchronous to the aims and ambitions of the Gram Nyayalaya Act, which strengthens the case for its incorporation into the legislation. The same is true also because of the reason that this initiative, even after gaining success has suffered a lack of funds from the end of the government. There are certain advantages that are possessed by this mobile justice system, which makes it a better, safer, and more affordable alternative than a Gram Nyayalaya, and the same shall also serve to be the reason, as to why it should be codified.
Better Economic Feasibility for Access
As of now, there are just 395 operational Gram Nyayalayas, or rural courts against the goal which was to construct 5,000 such courts around the country. Considering the budget requirements herein, a single mobile court with a good infrastructural framework and supporting mechanisms can cover multiple districts thereby saving the government budget and giving a higher rate of return on the investment made by the government. Not only will it reduce the budgetary strain for the government but also the traveling expenditure for various litigants. This makes it a better alternative to clear the backlog of cases due in the lower tier of the judiciary.
Awareness as an Additional Motive
Apart from that, it can also solve the issue of lack of awareness on the part of the rural and uneducated litigants who wish to pursue claims in court. In fact, Mobile Legal Awareness Camps were conducted under the said initiative from 2009 to 2013 in Jharkhandwhich showed that with a total of 930 awareness camps conducted, a total of 4,45,020 people were benefitted. The same can be seen in the statistics pertaining to the Mobile Courts started there in 2009, wherein within a single year, there was a surge of 50% in the number of cases received. Interestingly, the surge discontinued the very next year thereby indicating the resolution of the backlogs of cases which can be seen from the fact that the number of cases registered remained to be similar in number, reaching a position of homeostasis. The essence is that an aware state will have more litigants using such justice systems.
Recording of Evidence in a Remote Manner
In case of hearings in the subordinate courts, there may be situations wherein a witness may not be able to come physically to a court or to the Gram Nyayalaya as well for that matter. One of the reasons for the same may be a potential threat to the life of the witness, which may depend upon the nature of the case. Apart from that, it may be due to the reason of old age, illness, or disability that any person may not be able to visit physically. These movable units under the JoW for such scenarios may be given the authority to record testimonies, as seen in Telangana and Uttarakhand wherein mobile courts were introduced for the same purpose.
Apart from the above-stated reasons, it is also important to understand exactly how the JoW initiative can be improved by its formalization. The higher budget allocations for better efficiency, and a more streamlined structure in the backdrop of the Act, would give more clarity as to the jurisdiction and procedure of JoW. Its codification will also lead to the collection of more data on its efficiency which can be analyzed to see state-specific responses of the people towards the above-stated proposal.
It is a long way to go in terms of justice being in close access to all sections of society, but the JoW can be a step in the right direction in order to clear the clutter in the judicial records. Codification of this practice will formally recognize the same, and would also make sure to properly utilize the digital infrastructure built in the judiciary during the time of the pandemic. It will further help in smoothening the process of access thereby incorporating elements of remote-based justice as well, apart from the mobility aspect which it primarily brings along with itself.
Ciocchini, Pablo. “Learning from the South: A Comparative Study of Judicial Reforms in Argentina and the Philippines.” Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 46, no. 4/5, Brill, 2018, pp. 445–66, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26567259.
This article has been authored by Rakshit Sharma, Associate Editor, and Shreya Jain, Assistant Editor at RSRR. This blog is a part of the RSRR Editor’s Column Series.