India’s Consumer Protection System On Life Support

Barun Chaudhary’s cancer-stricken wife Madhuwala, 55, died in 2005 after a botched blood transfusion. He sued Tata Memorial Hospital seeking a compensation of Rs 50 lakh. But it took the Maharashtra consumer commission more than a decade to grant him one-tenth of the claim.

The hospital is yet to pay the compensation, said Chaudhary’s lawyer Ajay Pawar. BloombergQuint has obtained a copy of the order and the hospital didn’t respond to our emails and phone calls.

Jharkhand-based Chaudhary’s case illustrates what ails India’s consumer protection system. Disputes stay pending for years and orders are not complied with. From lengthy court procedures to ill-trained staff and poor infrastructure to unfilled positions, everything adds to delays. Ironically, the mandate of such courts is to resolve disputes in 90 days, said Pawar, a member of the consumer lawyers’ body of Maharashtra and Goa.

Indian consumer courts were set up under the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. Complaints are filed at district forums, the first level of redressal available to consumers. Appeals then move to the state and national commissions. A verdict by the national commission can only be challenged in the Supreme Court.

Consumer courts have disposed of 91 percent of cases since inception, according to the ministry of consumer affairs. That’s way higher than most other courts.

Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean speedier justice, said MS Kamath, secretary of the non-profit Consumer Guidance Society of India. Civil cases can take up to seven years to reach a conclusion, but consumer disputes at times take nearly twice the time, he said. At the Maharashtra commission, some cases filed in 2003 came up for hearing this month.

Kamath and his wife recently won an order from the Thane district consumer forum, which sentenced two former directors of now-defunct PAL Peugeot to six months in prison. The two were held guilty of disobeying orders to refund with interest the booking amounts for the cars that were never delivered, 18 years after the couple first filed the complaint. The order was eventually stayed by the state commission.

While the Kamaths diligently pursued the case, many consumers either give up or remain clueless. When a complaint filed years ago comes up for hearing, the parties involved are sent notices to appear. Often, those who had filed the complaints have shifted to another house by then and can’t be reached, said Pawar. The result: cases are dismissed.

Missing Files, Papers

Lack of funding and infrastructure are major obstacles. The Maharashtra commission’s courts are housed in a government building on MG Road in South Mumbai, but the registry and records section is at another building a few kilometres away near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Files have to be ferried to and fro daily and mislaying leads to avoidable delays, said Pawar. Missing papers is a major reason for cases to be delayed, said Bhaskar Yogi, a lawyer and a member of the Maharashtra-Goa consumer lawyers’ association.

A committee appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the functioning of consumer courts in the country had found there were no proper courtrooms and record rooms lacked infrastructure to store files.

“The files are kept in open and get misplaced or eaten by termites,” according to a Supreme Court order that quoted the interim report of the panel headed by Justice Arijit Pasayat, a retired Supreme Court judge.

While the central government provides funds for construction of new buildings, renovation and office equipment, state governments have not been quick enough to allot land, the committee found during its visits to nearly a dozen states including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi.

More than a decade ago, consumer organisation Mumbai Grahak Panchayat and the Mumbai-Goa advocates’ body had filed petitions seeking the Bombay High Court’s intervention to provide adequate funding and infrastructure for the state consumer commission. Both the pleas are still pending.

Unfilled Vacancies, Quality Of Talent

Consumer court chiefs, called presidents, are appointed by the central and state governments in consultation with either the Chief Justice of India in case of the national commission or the Chief Justice of the high court at the state level. Members, who can have a judicial or a non-judicial background, are appointed by the central and state governments in consultation with the national and state commission president. Appointments to district forums are made by state governments in consultation with the state consumer commission president.

The apex court-appointed panel’s interim report, submitted in 2016, found that the quality of members at the state and district consumer courts was poor and salary offered was meager to attract qualified talent. Members at many district forums were incapable of writing or dictating an order, and in some instances non-judicial members acted against the president and passed orders that were contrary to the law and damaging to the institution, the panel had said.

State governments often don’t approve appointments recommended by selection panels on time, it said. And vacancies keep piling up.

The Justice Pasayat committee had also pointed out that most commissions worked for two or three hours a day, and there was bureaucratic and political interference in appointments, which led to inefficiency and delays. The panel is yet to submit its final report.

The Supreme Court took note and a full bench headed by then Chief Justice TS Thakur had called for action. It sent notices to chief secretaries of several states and directed the Union government to make policy changes.

A Supreme Court Order On State Of Consumer Redressal System A systemic overhaul of the entire infrastructure is necessary if the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is not to become a dead letter.

However, little has changed, say lawyers and activists. There is no proper process for appointing members, and contradictory judgments are leading to confusion and delays, said Anand Patwardhan, a senior consumer protection lawyer in Mumbai.

A Maze Of Rules

The government’s awareness campaigns for consumer disputes paint a simplistic picture: a buyer finds a defect in his new scooter, moves a consumer court after the dealer refuses to fix it, and gets the two-wheeler replaced.

It’s not that easy in practice. The consumer law was meant to be so simple that a complaint sent on a post card would have been enough, said Kamath. But successive presidents of Maharashtra consumer commission have added layers of procedures, making the law extremely complicated, he said.

MS Kamath, Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society Of IndiaThey have made the process so tedious that you cannot fight a case without a lawyer. Hence, the process is under litigated. If it is simplified, a lot more cases will be filed.

Justice AP Bhangale, president of the Maharashtra commission, had told BloombergQuint in an interview how he cuts through lengthy procedures to send those who deliberately disobey orders to jail. The commission blindly followed the lengthy trial process laid out in the Criminal Procedure Code – issuing a summons, recording a plea, framing charges, fixing of evidence, he said. But deliberate disobedience is enough to order imprisonment, Justice Bhangale had said.

Patwardhan admitted that this has had a good impact on compliance with orders. But he cautioned that in some cases the due process of law is being ignored, which should not be the case as it involves taking away an individual’s personal liberty. Such sentences get stayed or are set aside in an appeal, diluting the impact. There is scope for personal preferences in passing such orders and some consumer activists and litigants were misusing the sentencing provision, he said.

Untrained Administrative Staff

Quality of non-judicial employees makes matters worse. Justice Bhangale pointed out that the administrative staff at the state commission has been co-opted from the weights and measures department, and were not adequately trained for legal work.

Staffing problems plague the Delhi consumer commission as well. Members at times ask lawyers to help their staff draft notices, said Dhananjai Jain, an advocate on record at the Supreme Court. Manpower shortage only adds to the problem, he said.

It takes six years on an average to dispose of a consumer case in Delhi, Jain said. Judges or members give dates up to a year after a case is first filed and several disputes have been pending for more than four years. He cited an example of the first level of litigation that is still undecided more than two years after a complaint was first filed.

A simpler procedure, hiring appropriate staff and filling vacancies would help. An e-filing system where orders are updated regularly will be a big advantage for complainants from remote areas, and help resolve the problem of missing papers, said Yogi.

All these issues must be addressed by the new draft Consumer Protection Bill which will come up for debate in Parliament shortly, said Justice Bhangale.

(This article was first published on BloombergQuint)