Exam boards liable for poor service
Pushpa Girimaji

YEAR after year, we read shocking reports of examination boards making mistakes in the computation of marks or in the announcement of results. We also come to know of the helplessness of students, who are victims of such negligence. Well, the good news is that students can now use the consumer protection law to hold examination boards liable for their mistakes.

Even though the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 brought all paid services under the scrutiny of courts, certain unfortunate orders of the apex court had denied students and parents the right to seek compensation for deficient services rendered by universities and examination boards. In 1996, for example, in the case of Chairman, Board of Examinations, Madras, vs Mohideen Abdul Kader, the apex court had said that issues pertaining to examinations conducted by boards and universities did not come under the jurisdiction of the courts.

As far as other services rendered by educational institutions were concerned, it was yet to take a view on the applicability of the consumer protection law to them, the court had said. In other words, this order had put a big question mark over whether courts could adjudicate over any dispute pertaining to educational services.

Then finally in September, 2000, in the case of Bhupesh Khurana vs Vishwa Buddha Parishad, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission looked at this issue and held that services rendered by universities and educational institutions came under the jurisdiction of courts. However, it did not make any reference to examination-related issues, and three years later, in the case of Parveen Rani vs Punjab School Education Board, it reaffirmed its earlier view that courts cannot question examination boards. The complaint here was about the student not receiving the marksheet and certificate for 
eight years.

Subsequently, in the case of Amrit Paul vs Chairman, Punjab School Education Board, too, it reiterated that evaluation of answer papers, issuance of marksheets, declaration of results, etc by examination boards did not fall within the definition of ‘service’ in the consumer protection law. Hence, liability cannot be fastened on these statutory bodies for any mistakes committed in the discharge of their duties, the 
commission said.

Then finally last year, in the case of Board of Secondary Education vs Sasmita Moharana, the apex court reversed this view when it upheld an order of the lower court awarding compensation to a student for the loss of an academic year on account of the wrong declaration of marks.

The case pertained to the student being declared as failed in the examination, following incorrect computation of marks in the English paper. Following the intervention of the Orissa High Court, the board re-checked the marks and found that it was indeed incorrect, and that the student had actually passed in the subject. However, by the time the board issued the corrected marksheet, the admission process in all colleges had closed, resulting in the student losing an academic year.

In response to the student’s petition seeking compensation, the Orissa state commission awarded her Rs 10,000 as compensation. This was questioned by the board. The board’s argument before the national commission was that: (a) the conduct of examination and evaluation of answer sheets were part of the statutory duty performed by the board. Therefore, consumer courts had no jurisdiction to decide over disputes pertaining to this; (b) it had examined 54 lakh answer sheets that year and there was every possibility of some human error creeping in. That should not be considered as deficiency or negligence in the evaluation of answer sheets.

Dismissing these arguments, the apex court, in a detailed order, held that examination boards, too, came under the purview of the consumer courts and they could be held liable for deficient service. “Giving the wrong marksheet would certainly cause not just simple mental agony but would also have an adverse impact on the minds of the students of tender ages, causing depression and sometimes leading to suicide. We cannot, therefore, take a lenient view of negligence on the part of the assistant examiner, chief examiner or the Examination Department of any board in this regard”, said the commission.

The commission also quoted the Supreme Court in the case of the president, Board of Secondary Education, Orissa, vs D.Sunvankar, wherein the apex court had held that it was the duty of the board to ensure that the correct marksheet was issued to the candidates. In this case, for failing to do so, and wrongly showing the marks in one subject as 35, instead of 65 secured by the student, the Supreme Court directed the examination board to pay Rs 20,000 as compensation to the student.