Consumer rights

Lawyers lobby in courts
Pushpa Girimaji

Plotting robbery to pay lawyer’s fee", said a headline in a Bangalore newspaper. That aroused my curiosity and I read on. The police had caught three youngsters who had committed robbery in a couple of houses and stolen jewellery and cash. When questioned, they said they were forced to do it to pay for a lawyer who was to defend a friend facing a serious charge.

That, I thought, was an interesting report, that highlighted the expenses a litigant incurred in fighting a case in a court of law. One has heard of a theft to pay for a dear one’s expenses on hospitalisation. But stealing to pay for a lawyer was something new. All said and done lawyers are expensive and it is for this reason that consumers and consumer groups have been trying to keep lawyers out of the consumer courts. In fact the consumer justice system was designed with the view that consumers would fight the case themselves without the help of lawyers. But that hasn’t happened. In fact, at most consumer courts, black coats dominate the scene.

According to a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Administration in 1994, consumers believed that fighting a case before the consumer court was expensive because they had to hire a lawyer. When pointed out that they need not hire a lawyer and can well fight the case themselves, they expressed the fear that with a lawyer arguing the case on behalf of the opposite party, they would not stand a chance.

Several studies done by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs as well as some consumer groups have shown that lawyers also tend to take adjournments repeatedly, thereby delaying the process of adjudication.

Despite the fact that the consumer justice system is meant to give quick redress of consumer grievances through summary procedure before the courts, lawyers have been known to introduce unnecessary procedures, thereby complicating unnecessarily, the process of adjudication.

But more than anything else, the presence of lawyers speaking legalese tends to unnerve consumers who go to these courts.

Factoring some of these negative aspects, the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs introduced several amendments in 2003 to prevent adjournments and simplify further, the procedure before these courts. But unfortunately, they have really not had the desired results. One of the other amendments that the ministry tried to introduce at that time, but failed, was to restrict the participation of lawyers in the adjudication process before the consumer courts constituted under the Consumer Protection Act.

The amendments proposed at that time said the opposite party can engage a lawyer only if the complainant hired one, not otherwise. And the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Bill said this was meant to "reduce the possibility of protracted proceedings".

As can be expected, there were vociferous protests from lawyers around the country against this and eventually, the lawyers’ lobby won and when the amendments were finally passed by Parliament, the clause restricting the presence of lawyers in consumer courts had been removed.

Now once again, the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs is finalising a series of amendments to the Consumer Protection Act to streamline further, the process of adjudication before the consumer courts. And one of them is meant to restrict the entry of lawyers into the consumer courts. Lawyers have a strong lobby and let us not forget that the consumer courts have given them plenty of work. So they will not give it up so easily and will certainly pressure the government this time too. Soon after the Consumer Protection Act came into being, medical professionals lobbied hard against their being held accountable under the Consumer Protection Act. And at one time it seemed as if the government would give in. But what turned the tables was hundreds of letters that the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs got from consumers around the country urging it not to give in to the demands of doctors. It was this overwhelming counter pressure that ensured that consumers did not lose their right to sue medical professionals for negligent service. So this time too, consumers need to be pro-active and ensure that their interests are protected.