The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 15, 2001
Consumer Alert

An Act of faith
By M.R. Pai

THE United Nations by Consumer Protection Resolution No 39/248, on April 9, 1985, had recommended to its member countries legislation to protect consumers through an easy and inexpensive method. India adopted this suggestion. In 1986, the Indian Government passed the Consumer Protection Act. It is unique piece of legislation, and India is one of the few countries which can boast of such a consumer-friendly legislative measure.

The Consumer Protection Act 1986, has been in operation for about 14 years, and a number of deficiencies and shortcomings in its operation have come to light. It has, therefore, been already amended to make it more consumer friendly. Despite its drawbacks, it is a handy weapon for the consumers to ensure accountability as well as compensation for deficieney in goods and services.

The Act is universal, covering public, private and cooperative sectors. In spite of great reluctance and resistance from well-entrenched bureaucracies in Railways and Telecommunication Departments, they came in under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act. Likewise, professions of doctors, lawyers and others, and public hospitals are covered by the CPA.

A recent Supreme Court judgment has confirmed that the Provident Fund Commissioner, whose office is a source of agony for many retired persons, is also covered by the CPA. Earlier, in a landmark judgment, housing sector was also covered.

The CPA is a Central legislation, but its implementation has been left to state governments. This has resulted in different degrees of efficacy in the implementation of the Act. In some states, the disposal of cases is quick while in some other cases have piled up, reminding one of the delays in ordinary courts.

These consumer courts are based on the philosophy of "seller beware", which is contrary to the earlier philosophy of "buyer beware".

There are three levels of these courts. First, there is the district court, called District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum. It entertains claims up to Rs 5 lakh. Next comes the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, which is an appeal court from District Forum, and entertains claims between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 20 lakh. Each State has as many district courts as districts, and in metros like Mumbai or Chennai more than one, all topped by one State Commission. At the national level, there is National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. It has jurisdiction of claims of Rs 20 lakh or more, and entertains appeals from State Commission. Special Leave of appeal from the National Commission is made to the Supreme Court.

District Courts have three judges, one president necessarily having a judicial background (e.g., retired or qualified to be a District Judge); two eminent persons in public life, one of them necessarily a woman. State Commissions also have three judges, one of them a retired High Court judge, and two eminent public figures, one of them necessarily a woman, and National Commission has five members, the president being a retired judge of the Supreme Court, and one of the four other members being necessarily a woman.

Business or commercial disputes are disallowed, though a purchaser of a machine (e.g. sewing machine) for self-employment is allowed to approach the consumer courts. Otherwise, only consumers of goods or services can approach the consumer court for compensation for defect in a product or deficiency in service. Consumers of totally free services, e.g., a charitable dispensary, cannot approach the court.

There is no court fees. As many copies of the complaint as there are as judges are to be submitted, with all essential information, supporting papers like correspondence, and specifying the compensation demanded.

If admitted, the court will issue a notice to the opponent or opponents who are expected to reply within 30 days. The case can be argued personally. There is no need to appoint a lawyer, though lawyers are allowed to appear before consumer courts.

A case is supposed to be decided within 90 days, and, if there is a testing of a product, within 150 days. Unfortunately, many courts give adjournments overlooking the rule that only one adjournment is allowed. This has been a major factor for delays in consumer courts.

Court orders are enforceable by invoking Section 27, whereby a fine and imprisonment are prescribed on defaulters. Once the General Manager of a telephone department was threatened with such an order, whereupon he immediately responded to the court order.

Apart from defect in goods or deficiency in service, certain unfair trade practices are also covered by the Act.

Frivolous litigation is taken care of by Section 26, whereby the court can impose a fine of up to Rs 10,000 on a person for vexatious or frivolous litigation. Unfortunately, there are some professional blackmailers who misuse the Consumer Protection Act, and this section takes care of them.

In some recent judgments, officers of LIC, telephone department, etc., have been ordered to make good to their department the compensation amount ordered to be paid to the complainants by the consumer court. This is a very healthy trend because it knocks some sense into those members of the wooden bureaucracy who are impervious to public suffering.

The very threat of going to the consumer court has helped many consumers.

Instead of merely grumbling or griping, it is high time that consumers use this powerful weapon to establish their right for good quality products or efficient service. There is no substitute for self-help through the Consumer Protection Act, in spite of its drawbacks.


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