Building firms liable for defective structures
Pushpa Girimaji

Factors such as cost, security, maintenance and community services have made group housing a more desirable option for consumers, particularly in large cities. Even here, people prefer to form groups or cooperatives for the purpose of building such houses as it gives them a distinct advantage of keeping the cost and the quality of construction completely under their control.

In most of these cooperative housing projects, specialists such as structural engineers and architects are engaged to oversee the construction work. So the cost factor of the entire project depends on their efficiency, performance and professionalism. If executed well, such group housing societies can well boast of quality construction at a reasonable price. But, unfortunately, in most cases, deficiencies in services and defects in construction do crop up. If they are not in respect of the flats, the problem could arise in areas such as community services.

While in some cases, the defects become apparent in the beginning itself, in many these appear much later in the form of cracks and other defects. Even though most agreements between societies and construction companies incorporate clauses that provide for rectification of defects, the enforcement of such agreements is not an easy task, and this invariably leads to disputes between the parties. In some cases the contractors even go to the extent of suspending the construction work.

In order to avoid such delays, most societies prefer to take up the issue of poor quality construction only after the completion of construction work. Thanks to the Consumer Protection Act, in such a situation, either the members can together file a class action suit or the office-bearers of the society can file a complaint on behalf of all the members. However, in order to succeed in such a case, the society has to provide proper evidence to show negligence or deficiency on the part of those who were providing various services for a fee.

In all these cases, since the agreement between the contractor and the society or the architect and the society is the basis for determining deficiency, one has to carefully look at those agreements and produce evidence to show where and how the terms of the agreement have been violated. It is also equally important to get the construction quality audited by a qualified firm. It is also essential to get qualified people to assess the repairs required to get rid of the deficiencies.

Such a complaint and compensation would not only help clients overcome the loss and mental agony suffered on account of poor quality construction, it would also send a warning signal to those in the construction industry who donít take their professions seriously.

Some months ago, the national consumer disputes redressal commission decided one such case filed by a cooperative group housing society, alleging deficiencies on the part of the architectural firm engaged to oversee the work of the builder, and demanding adequate compensation to pay for the repairs required to overcome certain defects in construction.

The national commission, after a detailed perusal of the case, however, held that the society did not convincingly establish its allegation that the various defects mentioned in the complaint were all attributable to the respondents, who failed in discharging their duties and responsibilities under the agreement. However, on certain counts, it found deficiency on the part of the architects, but that would not make them liable for damages or compensation as claimed by the society, the commission held.

In the end it awarded a small compensation of Rs 1 lakh. Out of this, the architects would be entitled to retain half of the unpaid fees due to them, being Rs 39,000, and pay the balance of Rs 61,000, the commission said (Mayur Cooperative Group Housing Society vs Osan and Associates, FA no 359 of 2003).

The national commissionís order confirms the right of a cooperative society to file such cases under the Consumer Protection Act. But it also highlights the need for production of better evidence to win the case. As I said earlier, the society needs to prove violation of the agreements. It is also better to get the construction audit done by reputed companies. In fact in this case, the society had given, as part of the evidence, a certificate by a government-approved surveyor and loss assessor on the defects and the cost of repairs.