Justice through consumer courts: Glass still half full for Indian consumers

The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 was a landmark development. It was meant to bypass the overburdened civil and criminal courts and offer speedy and inexpensive redress for consumers' grievances in a simplified format. This World Consumer Rights Day, consumer activists however say that the initial promise of the Act remains only half fulfilled.

Strong pro-consumer rulings: Many of the pro-consumer rulings of State Commissions have strengthened the cause of consumer protection. To cite a couple of examples, the Maharashtra State Commission was the first to rule that telecom-related complaints come under the Consumer Protection Act. The matter went to the National Commission and subsequently to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Maharashtra State Commission's order. Similarly, the Maharashtra State commission had ruled that the student is also a consumer. Several educational institutes conduct unrecognised courses, or claim affiliations that are non-existent. Sometimes they have inadequate teaching faculty and other amenities. The Commission's ruling meant that victims of such institutions could get redress through consumer courts.

However, there are a number of systemic issues that make it difficult for consumers to get justice, which we shall turn to next.

Mounting burden of cases: As with civil and criminal courts, consumer courts in India, too, are now overburdened with cases. The number of cases pending in various consumer fora is over 450,000, according to media reports. Many posts in consumer courts remain vacant. All this means that it can take a long time for cases to be decided. “Some cases do not get a single hearing for six-eight months, while some have been pending for decision for as long as eight years,” says Nitin Saxena, founder, All India Consumer Education Society. 

Filing format keeps changing: Sometimes, consumers' complaints get rejected because they are said to be filed in the incorrect format. Time and again, the format keeps getting changed depending on the notions of the presiding officer. “In reality, there is no specified format either in the Act or in the rules. In reply to my RTI (right to information) query, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) replied that there is no assigned format for filing a consumer complaint in District Consumer Forums,” says Arun Saxena, president, International Consumer Rights Protection Council. The problem is particularly pronounced in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane consumer courts, says Saxena, who files complaints on behalf of consumers across the country and does not face this problem elsewhere. 

Criteria for deciding forum needs relook: At present, which consumer forum — district, state or national- the consumer will file his case in depends on the combined value of goods or services and the compensation sought. If this value is up to Rs 2 million, the case has to be filed in a district forum. If it is above Rs 2 million and up to Rs 10 million, it has to be filed with the State Commission, and for values above Rs 10 million, with the National Commission. Consumer activists say that the criterion should be based only on the amount of compensation sought, as the following example will make clear. Suppose that a person purchases a flat for Rs 9.9 million. There is a defect in the flat, whose rectification will cost Rs 200,000. What the consumer is trying to claim through the courts is only Rs 200,000. For such an amount, it would be ideal if the case were to go to the District Forum. But since the value of the goods or service also has to be considered, the total value comes to Rs 10.1 million, and hence the case has to be compulsorily filed in the National Commission. “In a vast country like India, a consumer may have to fly all the way from, say, somewhere down south to Delhi, spending on airfare, hotels, etc., just to get a claim of Rs 200,000. This is unfair on the consumer,” says consumer activist Jehangir Gai. He adds that this criterion needs a relook.

Need for Act to evolve: While the Consumer Protection Act has been amended a few times, activists say it still lags behind times. “We need provisions in the Act to address new-age cases, such as those arising in the domain of e-commerce,” says Nitin Saxena. 

Uneven implementation has diluted RERA: The setting up of Real Estate Regulatory Authorities (RERA) in states has been a landmark development towards protecting homebuyers’ rights. A report from Ambit Capital notes that due to the Authority's pro-consumer stance and punitive penalties, developers are now afraid to delay possession. Says Vivek Agarwal, co-founder and principal partner, Squareyards.com, a technology-enabled transaction platform and aggregator: “The developer community has definitely turned more responsible and professional. Deadlines for possession are now treated as sacrosanct. The requirement to put 70 per cent of the money collected from homebuyers into an escrow account means that this money is used to complete the project, and not to buy land elsewhere.”    

However, quite a few issues have arisen with RERA as well. “In many states, the Central regulation has been diluted. Many states have yet to set up an authority,” says Nitin Saxena. 

Consumer activists cite other instances as well where the Authority's rulings have not favoured the consumer. Sometimes, in the agreement letter signed between the builder and the buyer, the date of possession is left blank. In some such cases, RERA has not entertained the customer's complaint, citing contributory negligence on his part.

Moreover, when the Authority passes an order, the mechanism for ensuring that it is complied with is inadequate. If a developer disobeys RERA's order, the flat purchaser has to get the Authority to issue a recovery certificate, which then has to be executed by the Collector to recover the amount as arrears of land revenue. Consumer activists say that this can be a tedious procedure as the Collector's office is an independent authority and there is no provision for exercising control on it for such recovery proceedings.

Preparation is the key
  • To be able to win your case in a consumer court, getting the documentation in place is the key
  • When dealing with a developer, get him to put every promise down on paper
  • When getting treated at a hospital, insist on a written schedule of treatment and keep the entire trail of paperwork intact
  • Collecting the paperwork later, when issues arise, can be very difficult
  • Mediation centres are also available within hospitals. RERA too has mediation centres. You may try them first for grievance resolution