Banks must ensure safety of lockers
Pushpa Girimaji

There have been instances of valuables disappearing from bank lockers. In several such cases, consumer courts have come to the rescue and awarded compensation. But termites damaging valuables in safe deposit lockers? That’s something unheard of. You may even find it unbelievable but, then, sometimes facts are stranger than fiction. You keep your valuable papers in a bank locker because you do not want them destroyed in a fire or stolen or eaten by termites in your home. And then one day when you open your locker, you find these creatures feasting on your share certificates and property papers.

Well, this actually happened at the Meerut cantonment branch of the Union Bank of India. And the affected person had to wage a long legal battle to get compensation for the loss suffered on account of termite infestation. The apex consumer court’s order in this case highlights two important points: (1) the need for banks to ensure the safety of lockers. (Banks cannot get away with ‘terms and conditions,’ saying that they are not responsible for the safety of valuables kept in lockers); and (2) the need for banks to respond with alacrity to complaints about the service.

Ms Kanak Choudhary and Ms Mohini Choudhary had jointly hired a safe deposit locker in the bank in 1993. On June 3, 1998, Kanak Choudhary visited the bank to operate the locker and on opening it found termites inside. Worse, they had eaten up part of the currency notes worth Rs 56,500 kept in the locker and damaged some certificates and jewellery, too.

Immediately, she brought this to the notice of the bank and lodged a complaint, seeking compensation. On getting no response, she filed a complaint with the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Comission, which allowed the complaint, and after assessing the damage, awarded Rs 23,100 as compensation. The commission also held the manager personally responsible for what had happened and said that out of the compensation amount, Rs 200 should come from his pocket.

The State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission , before which the bank filed an appeal, upheld the order of the lower court, except for the part pertaining to the bank manager having to pay Rs 200.

In the revision petition filed before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, the bank argued that the orders of the lower courts were erroneous because there were no termites in the locker. In support of this contention, it produced letters from three bank customers who had hired safe deposit lockers, saying that they had not found any white ants in their lockers. It also produced a letter from a pest control team certifying that there were no white ants in the bank.

These were, however, rejected by the apex court, as had been done by the lower courts. The national commission pointed out that the three letters of bank customers were of no value—-two of them had been written nearly 10 months after Ms Choudhary’s complaint about termites in her locker, and the third letter was undated. Even the letter from the pest control team, Modi Nagar, dated June 3, 1998, was worthless because it was produced more than a year after lodging of the complaint.

Till then, the bank had not bothered to contest the allegations made in the complaint and had submitted its written version only on July 3, 1999. On the other hand, the complainant had produced before the court currency notes worth Rs 11,000 damaged by termites.

While dismissing the bank’s petition and awarding costs of Rs 7,500 to the affected party, the apex court observed that on receipt of the complaint, the least that was expected from the bank manager was to immediately inspect the locker and assess the extent of loss, if any, by termites. No such course of action was taken by the bank. "The bank", said the apex court, "was bound to ensure that the respondent’s locker remained safe in all respects".

This is exactly what the RBI has said in its letter addressed to all scheduled commercial banks on April 17 this year on the issue of safe deposit lockers. "Banks should exercise due care and necessary precaution for the protection of the lockers provided to the customers", the RBI has said.