World Consumer Rights Day: Do Consumer Courts treat consumers as kings?

Since 1983, March 15th has been celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. It is the day when the US President, John F Kennedy sent the message to the US Congress in 1962 outlining the four fundamental consumer rights – the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard. To promote these consumer rights and to resolve consumer disputes in a timely manner, the Indian Parliament adopted the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in 1986.

Bhamy V. Shenoy

The theme of WCRD for this year is Fair Digital Finance. The vision of Fair Digital Finance is to build a marketplace that is inclusive, safe, data protected, and sustainable for everyone. These are laudable goals. However, for us in India, more pressing problem should be the way our consumer courts are functioning. The most important goal for a common consumer is simple and basic. It is to reinvent the consumer courts to fulfil the fundamental idea of helping the common man get speedy justice without the help of a lawyer.

Redefining Consumer Courts in India

Over the years, consumer courts have become veritable civil courts. They often recommend seeking legal help. Adjournments are given on the fly and that too without imposing penalty as required. Less than 25% of cases are resolved within the mandated period of 90 days. Still, while celebrating WCRDs or National Consumer Days, their presidents talk eloquently about how easy and quick it is to get judgements. 

In fact during the celebration of WCRD last year at Vidyavardhaka Law College, Mysuru District Consumer Redressal Commission (Consumer Court) B Narayanappa stated that a consumer can simply submit the complaint on a white sheet of paper. When he was questioned why the commission cannot give judgment in one sitting without any adjournment, his answer clearly showed how the consumer court has become a civil court. He responded that the process involved getting evidence, framing charges, assessing credibility of evidence, etc. These are all the steps involved in civil and criminal courts when the CPA clearly states they should settle cases without applying a complex process and it should be a summary trial. 

Judges who are used to the elaborate process cannot change overnight unless they are given special training on the basic philosophy of CPA. They are all experienced judges. Still they need to learn about the history of consumer movement, and make them familiar with several consumer related laws. Above all, they should imbibe the basic principle of consumer to be treated as a king while purchasing goods and services. Moreover, at government offices, officials should treat people as their “masters and not as servants”. The colonial mentality prevailing in government offices and consumer courts needs to go.

Unfriendly Conduct of Consumer Courts

A recent example of a complainant seeking help in the Mysuru Consumer Court vividly proves how they are consumer-unfriendly and go against the spirit of the CPA. A consumer had purchased a tour package from a travel agency and the travel agency failed to comply with the contractual terms. For example, the quality of hotels were less than promised with poor quality food (the consumer had to seek medical help), sightseeing sites were cancelled at the last minute, etc. The consumer finally had to curtail the trip and return home. 

When he went to the consumer court to submit the complaint, he was first asked to contact a lawyer. The complainant told the staff that he has been advised by a consumer activist that there is no need of a lawyer. He was then asked to bring five copies of the complaint and two stamped envelopes which can be sent by registered post. The next day, when the complainant went to submit the complaint, he was advised again that he should make use of free legal help so that the complaint is filed properly as per some set format. Once more when the staff was reminded of the public statement by her president that a complaint filed on plain sheet of paper will be acknowledged, the complaint was accepted. 

Scope of Consumer Protection Act 

It is useful to quote a recent judgment to show how India’s Supreme Court has concern and interest in assisting the consumers while our own consumer court upholds “formality” reflecting colonial mentality. Just last month, the SC imposed a fine on states which have failed to fill vacancies in consumer courts and also failed to provide needed infrastructure. While passing judgement, it observed that the “scope of the Consumer Protection Act is to redress the small aspect of daily lives of the consumers”. Unfortunately, such sentiments of SC are not shown by consumer courts. Mysuru’s (it is no different at other places also) court refused to meet the consumer activist who sought a meeting to discuss the consumer unfriendly behaviour of his staff. 

Let me end by giving my own example of seeking redressal against an electrical contractor and Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) in 1990. In the former case, the contractor had failed to provide the promised services and in the latter, KSRTC had failed to take me to my destination by giving a lame excuse. In both the cases, I filed the case on a plain paper just giving the deficiency in service and did not have to follow any set rules and formalities. Also, there was no adjournment though the respondent was not present in the case of KSRTC. It is rather sad that when Consumer Courts came into existence, getting redressal as implied by SC to help the common man was indeed simple, and today they have become veritable civil courts. Part of the blame has to be accepted by us, the people. 

To enjoy the fruits of democracy we need to be ever vigilant. We need to get involved to put pressure by taking appropriate steps like filing PILs if needed, complaining to the ministry of consumer affairs and National redressal Commission, etc. When all else fails, we should be ready to undertake even Satyagraha. Only when we are mistreated at consumer courts, we get agitated. But we are never ready to join a movement to bring reform. Shall we on this WCRD resolve to fight for our consumer rights?

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