Apex Court Judgement Favours Consumers

Updated: Nov 9 2003, 05:30am hrs
In India, the consumers are a harassed lot, exploited by almost everybody and taken for a ride by most of the manufacturers of goods and suppliers of services. Whether a manufacturer palmed him off with inferior goods or he was a victim of some shoddy service by a hotelier, the only remedy available was to approach the court. Now anybody who has had the misfortune of seeking redressal from the court of law knows how complicated, time and money consuming the whole process is.

With a view to overcome all such handicaps and provide a cheaper, quicker and effective remedy, the Central Government enacted a new legislation complete with new machinery to provide redressal to hapless consumers. That is how the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, (the Act) came on the statute.

Under the Act, a three-tier redressal machinery has been provided with a District Forum in each district, followed by the State-level Commission with National Commission (NC) at the top. Final appeal, as always, will lie to the Supreme Court.

The proceedings before the Consumer Forums are in the nature of summary proceedings, which means that any case involving complicated questions of fact/law would not be normally entertained by the Consumer Forums.

However, what exactly is a complicated question would invariably depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case. At times it could happen that a particular Consumer Forum might refuse to entertain a particular complaint on the ground that it involves complicated questions. Refusal by a Consumer Forum to entertain a complaint would relegate the matter to civil courts thereby putting the consumer to great difficulty and negating the objective of the Act.

A somewhat similar situation arose in the case of CCI Chambers Co-operative Housing Society, an upmarket housing society in South Mumbai. [CCI Chambers Co-op Housing Society Ltd versus Development Credit Bank Ltd 2003 CTJ 849 (Supreme Court) (CP)].

The brief facts of the case are that, the housing society was maintaining a Savings Bank Account with the Development Credit Bank. The society had filed a complaint alleging deficiency of service by the bank. The contention of the society was that the bank had wrongly debited an amount of Rs 75,70,352 in its account by honouring certain cheques that bore forged signatures of the society.

Similarly, in some of the cheques the figures had been altered. Interestingly, as many as 72 cheques were issued on such dates when one of the two persons purportedly drawing the cheques was already dead. The other one denied his signatures and such disputed signatures did not at all tally with the standard specimen signatures filed with the bank. Suspicion was raised against an official of the bank.

The society served a notice before filing the complaint, but the bank failed to redress the grievance of the society thereby compelling it to approach the NC with its complaint that refused to entertain the complaint.

In the view of the commission, keeping in view the allegations in the complaint and the time that would be required to decide the matter, it would not be possible for this commission to take up the said matter. The commission felt that numerous documents would be required to be proved including about 150 cheques. In addition, service of the experts would have to be requisitioned for proof of the signatures and the writings wherein the figures in cheques had been altered.

In support of its stand, the commission made a reference to a judgement of the apex court. Accordingly, the NC held that the societys case involved an acute dispute.

In fact, the commission expressed its anguish that it was constrained to refuse to entertain the societys complaint and instead advised the society to approach the civil court of appropriate jurisdiction. Not being satisfied with the view taken by the commission, the society went in appeal to the Supreme Court.

The apex court observed that fora at the National Level, the state level and at the district level had been constituted under the Act with the avowed object of providing summary and speedy remedy in conformity with the principles of natural justice.

The court also noted that the said fora had been established and conferred with jurisdiction in addition to the conventional courts. Significantly, the apex court remarked that the principal object sought to be achieved by establishing such fora was to relieve the conventional courts of their burden of ever-increasing cases and delayed disposal due to complicated and detailed procedures.

In the context of the societys case, the apex court made an observation that, merely because recording of evidence was required, or some questions of fact and law had arisen which needed to be investigated and determined, that in itself could not be a ground for shutting the doors of any forum under the Act to the person aggrieved.

The apex court has held in the CCI case that the decisive test was not whether the question of fact and law arising for decision was of complicated nature. The apex court said that, instead the anvil on which entertainability of a complaint by a forum under the Act has to be determined is, whether the questions, though complicated they may be, are capable of being determined by summary enquiry.

In other words, whether by doing away with the need of a detailed and complicated method of recording evidence it is possible for the forum to do justice to a case.

It needs to be noted that the fora under the Act are headed by experienced judges of SC, high courts and district courts respectively. Hence, next time when you have to approach a forum under the Consumer Protection Act and the forum is not inclined to entertain due to complicated question of fact and law, you can very well draw the forums attention to the decision of the apex court on this point.

(The author is a Company Secretary)