Report No. 14
1. The Civil Justice Committee of 1924-25 observed:
"The Village Panchayat-villagers mediating between contending parties in their own village-has, in some form or other, existed in this country from the earliest times and that without resort to any elaborate or complicated machinery * * * *. The judicial work of the panchayat is part of that village system which in most parts of India and Burma has been the basis of the indigenous administration from time immemorial."1
1. Report, pp. 105-06.
2. History of Panchayats (In ancient times).-
References to village panchayats abound in ancient literature and later historical accounts. In the structure of society as it existed in those days, the panchayat was the creation of the villagers themselves and was composed of persons who were generally respected and to whose decisions the villagers were accustomed to give unqualified obedience. It does not appear that these panchayats were brought into existence by the authority of the ruler. Except in matters of general importance, the ruler seems to have left the villagers to govern themselves and, among other things, the villagers assumed the responsibility for the settlement of disputes among themselves.
It has, however, to be remembered that the disputes which these panchayats were called upon to determine were simple disputes between one villager and another; disputes that would otherwise, have tended to disrupt the rural harmony. The village in those days was more or less self-contained and self-sufficient, the villagers being in a considerable measure dependent upon themselves. In such a condition of affairs, it was not unnatural that the panchayats should have exercised a great measure of authority and commanded the willing allegiance of the people.
3. Under the British Rule.-
The Royal Commission of 1907 upon Decentralisation in India recommended the constitution and development of village panchayats with certain administrative powers and jurisdiction in petty civil and criminal cases.1 The Government of India in their resolution of May 1915 on Local Self-Government recommended that though the jurisdiction of panchayats in judicial matters should ordinarily be permissive in order to provide an inducement to litigants to resort to them, reasonable facilities like the levy of small court-fees, the avoidance of technicalities and a speedier execution of decrees should be allowed to persons wishing to have their cases decided by panchayats. Following the expression of these views, steps were taken in most of the provinces to develop village panchayat courts.
1. Report, p. 241, par.a. 708.
4. Developments in Madras.-
In Madras, these courts came into existence under the Village Courts Act of 1888 (Madras Act I of 1889) which has since been amended in 1920 and 1951. The scheme of the Madras legislation was to have two classes of village courts; firstly, courts presided over by village munsifs, (in places where panchayat courts were not constituted) and, secondly, panchayat courts consisting of not less than five and not more than fifteen members elected by the villagers.
The suits cognizable by these courts were money claims due on contract or for personal property, not exceeding in amount or value the sum of Rs. 50, (Rs. 100 in case of village courts specially empowered) and Rs. 100 in case of panchayat courts with the exception of certain classes of cases. With the written consent, however, of both parties suits of the nature prescribed, not exceeding the value of Rs. 200 could be entertained by these courts.
The jurisdiction of the village courts was concurrent with that of the District Munsif but it was provided that the District Munsif may, if a suit was instituted in his court which was triable by a village court, transfer it to the village court unless sufficient reasons were shown to the contrary. The number of village courts exercising civil jurisdiction in the province of Madras in 1923 was as many as 7,755 and the number of panchayat courts was 2,182. The number of suits disposed of in the year 1922 by the panchayat courts was 90,865 as compared with 88,664 suits disposed of by the village munsifs' courts.
5. The position in Madras in 1922.-
The then Madras Government noted with satisfaction that village panchayat courts were affording substantial relief to civil courts and by dispensing speedy justice in simple cases were gradually laying claim to be recognised as useful institutions. Referring to the work of the panchayat courts, the High Court, in its report for the year 1922, observed:
"The rise in the number of suits instituted is almost striking and so far as it represents suits that would otherwise have been filed in village or regular courts satisfactory." "The paid tribunals have been relieved only to the extent of one-fourth of the work turned out by the panchayat courts. It is hoped that this relief will increase from year to year."1
1. Cited by the Civil Justice Committee, pp. 109 and 110.
Thus, panchayat courts in Madras appear to have become popular and attracted a large number of suits though their jurisdiction did not exceed Rs. 50 in value and was not exclusive.
6. In other provinces (Recommendation of the Civil Justice Committee).-
Legislation similar to the Madras Act was undertaken in the other provinces at about the same time. Such legislation generally provided that the jurisdiction of the panchayat courts was to be exclusive; the nature of the suits triable by such courts being money suits (varying in value from about Rs. 25 to Rs. 100) with certain exceptions. It was generally provided that legal practitioners were not to be allowed to appear on behalf of the parties in these courts. These courts were not to be bound by the rules of evidence or procedure other than those prescribed under the Acts constituting them.
The execution of their decrees was to be made by the Collector on certificates issued by the panchayats. In most of the provinces where these courts were introduced, they seem to have been popular, disposing of a large number of suits and relieving the regular courts of the burden of dealing with petty disputes. The Civil Justice Committee, after giving an account of the legislation which had been then enacted, stated that "everywhere (except in Bombay) it is accepted that village panchayats with judicial functions should be used for the disposal of small cases, varying in value from Rs. 25 to Rs. 200."1
1. Report, pp. 115-116.
The Committee recommended that "in all the Provinces endeavour should be made to develop this system so as to withdraw all simple money suits of smaller value from the munsifs' and small cause courts, thereby relieving these courts of a large amount of petty work and making it possible for them to cope with the larger duties we think may be given to them."1
7. Criticisms overstated.-
It appears that the objection to these courts based on the ground of the existence of factions and communal dissensions in the villages was also pressed before the Civil Justice Committee. In this connection they observed as follows:
"In the course of our investigation we were told in the various Provinces by some witnesses that communal differences and factions are in the way of any further extension of the jurisdiction of these tribunals. There is some force in this objection, but it is in our opinion overstated. In villages where there are common interests to be protected, common services to be rendered and common funds to be administered, it is idle to ignore the common life of the village in which the necessities of neighbourhood have held their own or have prevailed against the divisions of caste."1
1. Report of the Civil Justice Committee, p. 116.
8. Present position: Constitutional provision.-
A generation has elapsed since the matter was examined by the Civil Justice Committee. Naturally, the importance of re-organising and strengthening village units as organs of local self-government and for the dispensation of justice has been greatly emphasised since the advent of Independence. The Constitution has recognised the importance of these village units and in Article 40, one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, it provides that the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.
The administration of justice was in old days, as we have seen, one of the functions of the panchayats in the villages. Following this age-old practice, many of the States have recently enacted fresh legislation for the constitution of village panchayats and have provided that committees of these panchayats should function as nyaya panchayats and deal with petty civil and criminal cases arising in the villages.
The general pattern of the constitution of these panchayat courts under the legislation now in force in the various States is not dissimilar. The following Table indicates in a broad manner the constitution of these courts in the different States, their territorial jurisdiction and the Acts under which they are constituted:
|Name of the State and the Statute||Territorial jurisdiction||Mode of appointment||Number of Panchas||Quorum of Bench||Duration of Bench||Disciplinary action-How panchas are removable|
|The Madras Village Panchayats Act (X of 1950) and the Madras Village Courts Act, 1888 (1 of 1989).||Village or a group of villages with not less population.||By election.||Not less than five and not more than fifteen.||Three||Three years||The Collector may suspend or remove for incapacity, neglect of duty etc., he shall do so on a requisition from the D.J. When he notice a like cause in a judicial proceeding.|
|The Assam Rural Panchayat Act (XXVII of 1948)||Area notified by Government.||By election (Elected members of the Rural Panchayat Adalties who may or may not be members of the Panchayat.||Five||Three||Three years.||Removable from office for reasons prescribed by District or Sub-Divisional Magistrate.|
|The Bihar Panchayat Raj Act, 1947 (VII of 1948)||Village or part or group of villages as notified.||Election by the voter of the Gram Panchayat.||Fifteen||Three||Three years.||Removable by Government for misconduct incapacity, neglect of duty etc. or a recommendation of the prescribed authority.|
|The Bombay village Panchayat Act (VI of 1933) as amended by the Bombay Act VII of 1954.||Village or group of villages notified by Government.||Election. Elected members of the panchayats elect five panchas from among themselves.||Five||Three||Four years||Removable by the District Local Board for misconduct, negligence or incapacity with the previous sanction of the collector.|
|The Travancore-Cochin Village
Courts Act (VII of 1954).
|Two or more villages, division in a village or a specified area.||Nomination by Government.||Five||Three||Three years.||Government may suspend or remove for neglect of duty, misconduct, etc.|
|The Central Provinces and Berar Panchayats Act, 1946 (1 of 1947) as amended by the Madhya Pradesh Act, II of 1951.||Village having not less than thousand people or group of villages.||Selection by the State Government from amongst the elected members of the Gram Panchayat.||Not less than five.||Three||Five years.||Corruption, neglect of duty, moral turpitude, etc.|
|The Madras Village Panchayats Act (X of 1950) and The Madras Village Courts Act, 1888 (1 of 1989)||Village or a group of village with not less than 500 population.||By election||Not less than five and not more than fifteen.||Three||Three years||Collector may suspended or incapacity, neglect of duty etc., he shall do so on a requisition from the D.J. When he notices a like cause judicial proceedings.|
|The Mysore Village Courts Act VII of 1913.||Village or a group of two or more villages or division in a village.||Appointment by the Deputy Commissioner.||Village Munsif or a bench of more than one judge.||Village Munsif or a Bench of three judges including the village Munsif.||Deputy commissioner may suspend or remove for incapacity, neglect of duty, misconduct or other just and sufficient cause; he shall do so on a requisition made by the District Judge for like cause appearing in the judicial proceedings of a Village Munsif.|
|The Orissa Gram Panchayats Act, 1949 (Act XV of 1948).||Village or villages with population of not less than 1500. (A circle comprising, Several Gram Sabhas as notified).||Election by villagers (that is, the Gram Sabha).||Panel consisting of Panchas elected by Gram Sabha at the rate of two poanchas and one sarpanch per Gram Sabha||Three||Three years||By the prescribed authority for prescribed reasons.|
|The Punjab Gram Panchayat Act, 1952 (IV of 1953)||Village or a group with population of note less than 500.||Election by adult villagers.||Five ti nine, Adalti Panchayas to whom larger powers can be granted, may be elected by the Panchas of a group Panchayst..||Three||Three years||Removable by State Government for incapacity or misconduct.|
|The Rajasthan Panchayat Act, 1953, (XXI of 1953.)||Village or group of villages.||By election||Not less than five nor more than fifteen||One-third of the number of panchas.||Three years.||State Governments may remove for misconduct, neglect of duty etc.|
|The united provinces Panchayat Raj Act (XXVI of 1947) and the United Provinces Villages Courts Act(III of 1892).||Circle comprising of village or villages subject to the jurisdiction of Gram Sabhas.||Appointments by prescribed authority from amongst the elected members of the Gaon Panchayt||Five or lesser number from each Gaon Sabha included in circle.||Five||Five||Removable b the State Government for incapacity or abuse of position.|
|One or more Gram Sabhas in the area to be specified by the Government.||Election by the elected members of the Anchal Panchayat.||Five-one from Gram Sabha,||Majority||Four years.||By Government for good and sufficient reasons.|
9. Existing Enactments-General Provisions.-
It is desirable to set out in some detail the broad pattern of the provisions regulating these courts.
Jurisdiction in civil cases.-Normally the nature of civil suits cognizable by the panchayat courts are:-
(1) Suits for money due on contract (other than contracts relating to immovable property);
(2) Suits for recovery of movable property or the value of such property;
(3) Suits for compensation for wrongfully taking or injuring movable property;
(4) Suits for compensation for damage caused by cattle trespass.
In certain States, other causes of action of a petty nature have also been brought within the jurisdiction of the panchayat courts such as suits for the recovery of rent, suits under certain provisions of the local tenancy laws and the like. An important feature is that an upper limit has been set to the pecuniary jurisdiction of these courts. This limit varies from State to State. Generally speaking, however, suits the value of which does not exceed Rs. 100 are cognizable by the panchayat courts.
However, in Mysore and Bombay the limits are as low as Rs. 40 and Rs. 25 respectively. Generally, these Acts confer powers on the Government to increase the limit of pecuniary jurisdiction upto a maximum provided in the Acts. They also contain provisions to the effect that suits exceeding the value of the pecuniary jurisdiction of the courts can be heard and determined by them with the consent of the parties given in writing.
The panchayat courts, however, are not competent to hear the following classes of suits:-
(1) On a balance of partnership account unless the balance is struck by the parties;
(2) For a share or part of a share under an intestacy or for a legacy or part of a legacy under a will;
(3) By or against the Government or servants of Government in their official capacity; and
(4) By or against minors or persons of unsound mind.
Jurisdiction exclusive.-The jurisdiction of these courts is exclusive in the majority of the States; the States of Rajasthan, Andhra and Madras, however, provide for concurrent jurisdiction. The exclusive nature of the jurisdiction operates only in the areas for which panchayat courts have been created. But it is left to the Government under these Acts to create courts for such areas as they think fit.
10. Constitution of panchayat courts (The objective).-
Civil suits and criminal cases have to be tried by a Bench of a panchayat consisting of the Sarpanch or President and two other Panchas. The choice of the two Panchas, who form part of the Bench, is, in some States, left to the President whereas in other States, each party is given the power to select a Pancha. A duty is laid on the Panchas trying a suit or dealing with a proceeding to bring about in such manner as they think fit an amicable settlement between the parties.
For example, it is provided that the Bench of Panchas "shall, in such manner as it thinks fit and without delay, investigate the suit or case and all matters affecting the merits thereof and the right settlement thereof, and in so doing may do all such lawful things as it thinks fit for the purpose of inducing the parties to come to a fair and amicable settlement; and where such a settlement is brought about, the bench shall record the same and give its decision accordingly". (Section 58, Bihar Panchayat Raj Act, 1947).