In India, laws are made to solve particular problems at a certain time. Everyone is happy and enthusiastic that new solutions will flow out and people’s grievances will be solved expediently and easily with each new legislation. But that does not happen. The problems go under the carpet under the new mechanism and regulations and procedures implanted to dispose of grievances rule the roast.
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was enacted to provide better protection of the interests of consumers and for provision for establishment of consumer protection councils and other authorities for the settlement of consumer disputes. Although consumer dispute redressal agencies have served the purpose to a considerable extent under the said Act, the disposal of cases has various constraints. Several shortcomings have been noticed while administering the various provisions of the said Act. But people have lost faith in it, in spite of the continuous publicity by the government. Reasons of its failure to fulfil the objectives are namely, adoption of court’s mechanised lengthy procedure by three tier courts under the Act, delay in deposit of requisite papers by lawyers and their clients (consumers and opposite parties), non-co-operation by the court staff and their corrupt practices, requirement of additional documents, non-observance of strictness on adjournments, short sittings and undue delay in delivery of judgments.
The new Act, 2019 aims to deal with the above problems specially by doing away with the mandate of ex-judges to be presiding officers and by bringing in social activists at various levels. But this will also not solve the problem of delay in disposal of cases because the members on the benches will be selected by the executive i.e. mostly by the ministers who will be accountable to none except after five years. This basic change may not stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court which has directed in various judgments that only persons with judicial mind or background should be appointed to quasi-judicial bodies. That will also not solve the problem because persons with judicial background are habituated in lengthy judicial procedures which put least burden on the judges and their staff. Secondly, once the judicial officers are posted, administrative officers lose right to inspect their work due to inherent hesitation and possible ego clashes. Thirdly, the members will continue to be posted by whims and fancies of the politicians turned executives.
A new apex executive agency has been established, known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority to promote, protect and enforce the rights of consumers, make interventions when necessary to prevent consumer detriment arising from unfair trade practices and false or misleading advertisements and to initiate class action including enforcing recall, refund and return of products etc. This fills an institutional void in the previous Act. Earlier, the task of prevention or acting against organised and powerful unfair trade practices were not vested in any authority.
In spite of the shortcomings, all is not lost. Consumers are getting some relief from the existing three tier forums when there was no relief available in the past, especially in the real estate sector. Wherever, mediation has been tried at the grass root level by government functionaries like in West Bengal, NGOs have taken active and non-partisan part in this process and national and state level and even district level consumer helplines have been operated effectively by them. By including liability of the manufacturer, including commerce and electronic service providers within the ambit of law, adding food as defined under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, unfair contract by a person in the dominant position and permitting voluntary consumer association to file cases under the new Act, there will be lot of relief to the bona fide consumer. Class actions have also been allowed to be filed and misleading advertisements have been made directly punishable under the new disposition. It is also a welcome change that mediation will be now a practice at every level of litigation like in many European countries.
The new Consumer Protection Act can be effective if the cases before the District Consumer Forum (now named District Commission) are disposed of within three months or five months as per the direction contained in the Act and no adjournment is granted on frivolous grounds and reasons are recorded for granting the adjournment by each tier Commission. As per Order 17, Rule1, not more than one adjournment can be granted to a party in dispute/case. The cases should be summarily decided and lengthy procedures, and judgments should be avoided. Members and presiding officers who do not stick to the schedule laid down by the Act should be taken to task.