Changes in Consumer Protection Act: Devil is in implementation

The Government of India has proposed several amendments to the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. The proposals admit that the implementation of the Act has been tardy, which is reflected in the statistics available on the subject. The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission is grappling with appeals and original complaints filed in the period 2008-2010, which means consumers are being made to suffer for an average of five years to get their grievances redressed. For example, the Maharashtra State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has recently opened up cases kept aside in the sine die list for the period 1998-2004.

There are certain interesting and innovative changes proposed in the ‘dictionary Section 2’ of the proposed amendments. For the first time, the definition of the word advertisement, unfair contract and e-commerce have been incorporated to clear the air and update the Act to the modern era. There are excellent provisions for online filing of complaints, converting non-issue of a bill on completion of a sale as an offence, increasing the pecuniary jurisdiction of District Forums from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 50 lakh, a provision for scrutiny of cases prior to admission to be completed within 21 days and provisions for punitive damages in cases which should not be less than 10 times of the cost of the goods/ services provided.

Then there are provisions like compulsory depositing of 50 per cent of the amount passed in an order of the lower court before filing an appeal against an order and the power of review given to the Forums in case of clerical or technical errors, which was not permitted under the current law. These would be the non-controversial and widely accepted amendments.

There are however, many other amendments which are well-meaning but face huge logistical walls for implementation. A whole new chapter has been devoted to mediation, appointment of mediators and the system of mediation to settle disputes. While there can be no argument on these proposals, the concept of mediation has failed repeatedly over the decades in India, as experience by consumer bodies has shown.

The producers/service providers who land in tiffs with consumers, are reluctant to solve problems across the table for a wide array of reasons varying from ‘it will set up a bad precedent’, ‘let him do his worst, we are the stronger party’ to ‘under legal advice’. Lok Adalats set up to try and resolve consumer problems have thus been dismal failures, as past experience has shown. In addition, mediation is not compulsory. With such lenient terms, it is highly unlikely that defaulting companies will approach the mediation panel. In Western countries, where the costs and consequences of litigation are heavy, mediation works because the consequences of non-mediation are often catastrophic.

Advocates barred
Another contentious amendment proposed is for the barring of advocates from appearance in the Forums, both in complaints and appeals, if the matters pertaining to amounts under dispute are lesser than Rs 2 lakh. Such a move is not without parallel, since labour courts and other tribunals also have similar restrictions on appearances of advocates. While consumers would welcome this move in favour of quick settlement of their disputes, expect a furore from the legal profession which will see sinister designs to prevent from earning their livelihood in this amendment.

Many other amendments are consumer friendly, but possibly difficult to implement. One such is the provision that only one appeal is to be allowed in any dispute, no matter what the outcome is. ‘Goods once sold will not be taken back or exchanged’ – this classic Indian sentence on most cash memos and bills – will be part of history if an amendment barring such onerous conditions makes its way through Parliament.

Complainants will be allowed to file complaints in places where they reside – an excellent amendment in cases of e-commerce and in large multi-state companies. But what will happen if a doctor or petrol pump offering services is sued in a district a thousand km away from which services were procured? A Consumer Authority is proposed to be set up to rein in misleading ads, prevent unfair trade practices and in general, to protect consumer rights, but will this be one more regulatory authority with powers on paper but very little action being seen on the ground as has occurred with SEBI and IRDA?

The amendments are, however, silent on one important fact which worries every litigant who walks into a Consumer Forum: why are there interminable delays in the passing of orders in the simple, common-sense law system? Why are litigants forced to give their complaints in specific formats, submit loads of papers and subject to the torture of replying to multiple applications for adjournments and unwarranted documents by lawyers who throng consumer courts?

The amendments do not speak of methods to cut down the pernicious adjournment tactics and prolonged arguments that have made consumer forums as good or as bad as regular courts. There is no roadmap available on funding the quasi-judicial consumer law implementation system along with the proposal for the amendments, which will help it increase its efficiency and time-bound delivery mandate (the original law mandates passing of orders within ninety days in contested matters).

The more complicated the law, the more difficult is its implementation. By expanding the scope and reach of the Consumer Protection Act through the current amendments, the government’s intentions may be noble but the devil lies in the implementation of the Act. Or else, like in many other laws in India, “There are Acts and Acts and Acts… but nobody acts.”

(The writer is Hon Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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