The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was enacted to promote consumer welfare and protect the rights of the consumers, and in order to accomplish the same, the Consumer Commissions in the National, State and District level for Consumer dispute redressal was established. In contrast, the objective of these Commissions was to deliver justice and provide cost effective and speedy dispute redressal to the consumers. The same had not been achieved over the past years, as they fell prey to the traditional civil courts' inefficiencies and the procedural intricacies. Therefore, it was nevertheless safe to presume that the excessive vacancies, delay in the disposal of the cases as well as the high pendency of cases stemming from it, had successfully defeated the entire purpose of this Act.
In order to combat the same, the Central Government brought in the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, to abolish the intricacies of the previous Act. This Act addressed the regulations of the E-Commerce entities and set up a central regulatory body for the same. Although there were changes brought in to address the concerns of the changing marketplace of the consumers, the same did not prove effective in modifying the issues relating to the functioning and efficiency of the Consumer Commissions
Further, the 2019 Act also enforced a change in the pecuniary Jurisdiction to consider the consumer complaints according to their value, and these were the new values that were finalized:
- The District Commissions - Upto 50 Lakhs
- State Commission - More than 50 Lakhs and Upto 2 Crore
- National Commission - More than 2 Crores
The revised pecuniary Jurisdiction does entertain consumer complaints where the value exceeds 2 crores, as against the earlier 10 crore limit, but without ensuring time-bound proceedings for the same, the complaints filed by the consumers to seek justice might be a lost cause.
Justice delayed is justice denied
The legal maxim 'Justice delayed is justice denied' seems like an understatement at this point, considering the pendency of thousands of cases due to which lakhs of victims suffer because of delayed justice. The average period between two hearings in the Apex Consumer Forum is said to be three months, whereas the Consumer Protection Act limits the same to 90 days for an appeal. There are various consumer cases, revision petitions and pending appeals at the National Commission, which does not provide an alternative to the consumer, but wait for the case to be heard. Now, there are various reasons for the said delay, including the use of cumbersome procedures, adoption of dilatory tactics, and the reasons that range from the vacancies not being filled up in the Consumer Forums by the Government to the grievance of yearlong adjournments sought by the advocates. Due to the failed effective functioning of the justice system, the consumers are becoming the bait to the delay in such decisions. Considering the situation at hand earlier, the Supreme Court has extended the retirement of the members and its chairman, which proved to be ineffective.
When the Courts keep extending the dates, and the cases start piling up, it's unjust to the litigants. In many cases, the amount spent on filing and contesting a case exceeds the amount the litigants seek or get awarded as compensation. Therefore, when the delay is crucial, and the litigants cannot afford to pay the Counsel fees, they let go of the compensation amount, which negates the entire purpose of filing a complaint before the Court.
Adjournments at the comfort of the counsels need to be put to an end by the Consumer Courts. It is seen that there are at least 7 - 8 adjournments per case, which delays the decision-making process and gives enough time for the parties to influence the other party, which intends on making the entire process flawed. Along with this, the lack of technical expertise when a particular case on insurance or finance is brought up requires the bench to adjudicate according to the complexities of the matter, without which there may be a delay, or the decision adjudicated might not be standard.
As mentioned earlier, the Pecuniary Jurisdiction may be a lost cause without time bound proceedings. Although the change in the pecuniary Jurisdiction does ease the burden on the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission, on the other hand, it increases the burden on the lower forum (District Commission). Coming to the reality of the groundwork, the District Commissions are often known to be under-equipped in relation to the other commissions, in terms of technical support, court staff, et., which in turn may result in the lower rate of disposal of the consumer disputes and affect the objective of the revised legislation.
The National Commission or the State Commission is bound to follow the procedure that is laid down under Section 38 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, which emphasizes that on the receipt of the complaint, the opposite party shall be given 30 days along with an extension of 15 days which the District Forum or Commission may grant, to share their version of reply to the said notice. This mandate of submitting the written statement has to be done within the span of 45 days as mentioned, which would otherwise defeat the purpose of disposing of the cases within 3 - 5 months.
Therefore, in the case of Dr. JJ Merchant and Others v. Shrinath Chaturvedi, five essential steps were laid down by the Supreme Court to check the disposal of cases within the statutory limit, and the National Commission and the State Commission were advised to take action on the same.
- Exercise of Administrative Control, which ensures the appointment of competent people in the composition of the forum in order to reduce the delay.
- The members appointed would ensure that the time limit prescribed for filing the written statement of the opposite party and the disposal of the case within the statutory period is strictly adhered to.
- Evidence such as documents and affidavits that the parties intend to rely on must accompany the complaint.
- Cross-Examination of the persons who have filed affidavits must be done by giving such people the suggested questions, to which the reply may be provided on the affidavits.
- No adjournment shall be ordinarily allowed, except in cases where the speaking order would be made giving reasons for the same.
Another example of a delayed justice consumer case would be the one where an appeal was made to the National Commission against the State Commission for medical negligence in the year 1998, but the complaint was disposed off after 5 years, with a compensation of 7 lakhs. Meanwhile, the patient (Complainant) passed away before the verdict.
The high rates of pendency of consumer cases due to the delay in the disposal of the complaints can completely lift the trust of the litigants in the justice system, where the claims by the litigants are of a comparatively smaller value. Therefore, the adaption of Alternative Dispute Resolution is essential, for it's a cheaper, speedy and cost-effective method of disposal of cases. It would be one of the best strategies to be taken into consideration for disposing off the consumer complaints, which in turn would also lessen the burden on the Consumer Commissions and enable them to resort to a suitable and effective mechanism for the resolution of disputes. Mediation being one of the forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution, may be implemented, particularly in cases that are pending for more than 5 years in the Consumer Courts, and the same may prove effective due to its fair, cost-friendly and quick nature when in comparison to a complaint filed in a Consume Court. The provision for the same has also been included in the Act. Therefore, this resolution method may help reduce the backlogs by avoiding the delays and disposing off the cases within the prescribed time.