consumers beware!
Pushpa Girimaji
Smoothening the path for activists 

A consumer activist and the Secretary of a consumer organisation spends considerable time in representing consumers before the various consumer forums at the district, state and national levels. He does not charge any fee for the hard work, because he says only those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer and cannot fight the case on their own, come to him. Several consumer associations do voluntary work. Consumers who have fought and won cases in consumer courts, without the help of lawyers, help others who lack confidence. A new regulation notified by the National Consumer Disputes Redrssal Commission may well put an end to such voluntary work and force poor consumers who are incapable of fighting their case on their own, to just give up. That's because the regulations require all non-advocates appearing regularly before the consumer courts to mandatorily get “accredited” through a laborious and cumbersome procedure, including a qualifying examination. It gives the president of the forums the power to disallow or debar such an authorised representative from appearing before the court on certain grounds and even take disciplinary action, which includes imposition of penalty.

A perusal of the Act and the rules framed under it, makes the legislative intention clear. The parallel justice system is meant to provide an inexpensive remedy for aggrieved consumers, without having to engage a lawyer for the purpose. Keeping in mind the low literacy rate, the legislation thus provided for a consumer organisation or the government or any authorised person to represent the consumer before these tribunals. However, since lawyers were not specifically barred from these courts, they began representing the businesses against whom complaints were filed. The character of the forums changed and they resembled civil courts. Procedures became complicated, adjournments common and the language too changed. Consumers too began to hire lawyers. The very essence of the consumer justice system was lost. Consumer organisations and consumer activists provided some relief to poor consumers but lawyers saw them as competition and argued that non-advocates cannot represent consumers. Some of the forums agreed. In 2002, the Tamil Nadu State Commission prevented a representative of a consumer organisation from representing a widow in a medical negligence case, saying that the rules permitting non-advocates were inconsistent with the provisions of the Advocates Act and ought to be struck down. In 2000, the South Mumbai District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum took a similar position. The Mumbai State Consumer Commission brought to a standstill all cases in which authorised agents were appearing. In response to two writ petitions filed against this, a division Bench of the Bombay High Court held that complainants cannot be compelled to engage lawyers and that authorised agents cannot be barred from appearing before the consumer forums. Appeals were filed against this before the Supreme Court. In 2011, a three-member Bench of the Supreme court, in a detailed order, upheld the verdict of the High Court, pointing out that consumer protection rules give the consumers the option to either appear personally or be represented by duly authorised agents. The Supreme Court said: “The legislature in its wisdom has granted permission to authorised agents because most of the cases before the Consumer Forums are small cases of relatively poor people where legal intricacies are not involved and great legal skills are not required..” The SC put an end to the debate being raised by advocates and their associations and held that consumers have every right to engage a person other than an advocate to represent their case. However, while doing so, it directed NCDRC to frame comprehensive rules to regulate the eligibility, ethics and conduct of non-legal representatives.