Client's right to information is sacrosanct

Providers cannot repudiate a claim or withhold a service if they have not made clear the terms and conditions governing the provision of the service

In a number of judgements in recent years, the apex consumer court has censured service providers for violating the consumer's right to information, thereby giving a fillip to one of the most important rights of consumers.

Let me begin with the latest order, decided on July 26, pertaining to the aviation sector. The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission's order in this case has its origin in the return tickets issued to Dr R. Bhaskaran and his wife to travel to the US by Lufthansa Airlines. While the onward journey was fixed for August 8, 2002, the return was kept open, the validity being up to February 8, 2003. However, while in the US, Dr Bhaskaran took ill and they decided to return home in the last week of November, 2002. When the airline told them that no seats were available till January 2003, they were forced to approach other airlines and finally managed to return to India by North West Airlines on December 1. On their return, when they tried to get a refund for the unused part of the tickets, they were told that as per the terms and conditions governing the 'excursion fare' given to them, they were not entitled to any refund.

In order to settle the dispute, the National Commission asked the airline a simple question: were the passengers informed of the nature of the ticket given to them or the terms and conditions governing it? The commission pointed out in its order: The consumers were neither informed of the nature of the special discounted tickets nor the terms and conditions governing them. And there was no information on the tickets either, particularly the fact that there was no refund on unused tickets. Again, the 'Excursion Fare Scheme Chart', on the basis of which the airline was denying the refund, was a document that was not in public domain, nor were the passengers informed of it.

Emphasising that the airline cannot bind consumers to terms and conditions that were not made known to them, the commission observed: "The air ticket is the document of contract between the passenger and the airlines. It has to contain the specific terms and conditions governing the ticket". (Lufthansa German Airlines vs Dr R. Bhaskaran, RP NO 3617 of 2007)

Last year, in the case of Vodafone Essar South Ltd vs Arvind Reddy (RP No 2775 of 2007), the apex consumer court had made similar observations and held that a telecom service provider cannot compel a subscriber to pay at rates not specified in the tariff card. It had, in fact, held that such lack of transparency about the tariff constituted deficiency in service. In this case, the central point of the dispute was whether the service provider can charge the subscriber, at the rate of Rs 500 per minute for an ISD call made to a satellite phone, without giving this crucial information in the tariff card? The National Commission in this case upheld the order of the lower consumer courts directing the service provider to reverse the charges, pay Rs 5,000 as compensation and Rs 1,000 as costs to the consumer.

The banking sector too had got a similar message last year in The State Bank of Patiala vs Gopal Krishan Singla, (RP No 1063 of 2010). The bank in this case had not told the depositor that as per government rules; any deposit beyond Rs 60,000 in a financial year in his PPF account did not fetch any interest. Holding the bank guilty of deficient service, the commission had asked the bank to pay 6 per cent interest on the excess amount of Rs 4,80,000 deposited by the consumer.

The health sector, too, was reminded of the consumer's or the patient's right to information in Dr Shyam Kumar Vs Mr Rameshbhai Harmanbhai Kachhiya (RP No 1486 of 2001). A medical professional, said the commission, was duty bound to inform the patient about the details of the disease afflicting him, various alternatives available to him and the risks involved in the proposed treatment. Failure to do so constituted negligence and the doctor (or the hospital) had to take responsibility for the consequences, the commission said.

Similarly, in National Insurance Company Vs Shri D.P.Jain, ( RP No 186 of 2007) the apex consumer court made it clear that an insurance company cannot repudiate a claim on the basis of an exclusion clause that was not made known to the consumer, thereby reinforcing the policy holder's right to information and informed choice. Those service providers, who fail to learn from these orders, will face the ignominy of being hauled up before the consumer courts for violation of an extremely important right of the consumer.