Non-advocates can appear before consumer forums: Apex court

A bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari, Justice Dr. Mukundakam Sharma and Justice Anil R. Dave in their judgment Monday, but made available Wednesday, said that pre-existing relationship includes relatives, neighbours, business associates or personal friends.

The court said this in its detailed suggestion to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) for framing rules to facilitate the appearance of representatives who, however, are not legal practitioners before consumer forums.

However, speaking for the bench, Justice Bhandari said that the commission may consider creating a process through which non-advocates may be accredited to practice as representatives before a (consumer) forum.

The court further said that accredited non-advocates "shall be allowed to appear before a forum on regular basis".

The basic issue that was sought to be addressed by the larger bench was "whether a person under the purported cover of being an 'agent' (non-legal practitioner) could represent a large number of person before the consumer forum".

The apex court’s suggestions to NCDRC came while dismissing the appeals challenging the Bombay High Court judgment of Sep 4, 2002, which held that the authorised agents can appear before the consumer fora constituted under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, as they have "trappings of a civil court"  but "are not civil courts within the meaning of provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure".

The high court judgment came after the State Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission stayed proceedings in all the cases where non-advocate representatives were appearing on behalf of the complainants before district consumer forums.

Holding that the high court judgment could not be said to be “erroneous and unsustainable in law”, the apex court directed the NCDRC to frame comprehensive rules within three months of its order. 

"It is the bounden duty of the courts to discern legislative intention and interpret the statutes accordingly. In the instant case, act and rules have made specific provisions by which the agents have been permitted  to plead and appear on behalf of  the parties before the consumer forums. Therefore, to interpret it differently would be contrary to legislative intention," the judgment said.

It further said that the legislature has given an option to the parties before the consumer forums to either personally appear or be represented by an "authorized agent" or by an advocate, then the court "would not be justified in taking away that option or interpreting the statute differently".

The accreditation process, the court’s suggestion to NCDRC said, would involve written examination to test the knowledge of relevant laws and ability to make legal presentation, including the educational and professional background of the person seeking accreditation.

The presiding officer of the consumer forum would decide on the quantum of fee upon a specific request from the representatives appearing for a complainant.

The fixation of fee would be incumbent upon the extent and type of service being rendered by the representative, including the nature of the case and complexities involved and the level of skill and competence required for dealing with the case.

In the case where aggrieved party seeking monetary compensation, the quantum of fee would not be more than 20 percent of the damages.

The NCDRC will also create a code of conduct and frame rules empowering consumer forums to initiated disciplinary action against the non-advocates, agents, authorized organisations and representatives for violating code of conduct.  

The disciplinary powers would include suspension or banning of non-advocates from appearing before the consumer forum and include fines.

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