The Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 1986, provides for a timeframe of three months for consumer commissions to expeditiously dispose of consumer complaints registered before them. In reality, however, it takes three to five years on average before these are decided.
From casually granted adjournments to lack of manpower and vacancies in positions at commissions, reasons are manifold for the state of affairs. Every adjournment is sometimes longer than the entire time frame of three months provided to decide the cases.
Sec. 13 of the Act provides a timeframe for every stage of the case – right from its admission. The commission is supposed to refer a copy of the complaint to the other party within 21 days of admitting it. Thereafter, 30 to 45 days are given to the other party to file its response to the complaint.
The provision states that “every complaint shall be heard as expeditiously as possible, and endeavor shall be made to decide the complaint within a period of three months from the date of receipt of notice by the opposite party where the complaint does not require analysis or testing of commodities and within five months, if it requires analysis or testing of commodities.”
One of the reasons for the delay, explains Shirish Deshpande, chairman of Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, an organization that works in the area of consumer awareness, is that adjournments are granted “at the drop of a hat, left and right,” for reasons as trivial as the unavailability of a senior advocate.
The CPA also provides that “no adjournment shall be ordinarily granted by the District Forum unless sufficient cause is shown and the reasons for grant of adjournment have been recorded in writing by the Forum.” The reason, experts say, is seldom recorded.
While there is provision for costs to be imposed for seeking unnecessary adjournments, the costs of Rs. 1,000 or Rs. 2,000 are so meager that they do not serve as a deterrent, says Deshpande, especially when the opposite party, for instance, is a builder who wants to delay the matter.
Advocate Prashant Nayak, who deals with consumer cases, says parties are often given a “last chance,” but a last chance is never the last. The advocate says the reason for long adjournments is also the coram of a president and two members, not available. “For any hearing or order to happen, a full coram is needed, but it’s been a long time since I have seen a full coram,” he says. He explains how this contributes to the failure of the Consumer Protection Act in the country by stating that many people approach the commission for goods such as a mobile device.
For instance, one of the redresses available is the replacement of the mobile, for instance. “Who will stay without a mobile for three years till the matter is decided,” he asks. As per the Act, he says, a consumer case is supposed to go through a summary trial, but the commissions deal with them in the manner of a civil suit, says advocate Nayak.
The pecuniary jurisdiction of consumer commissions was increased with an amendment to the consumer protection law in 2019. While earlier, the district commissions could decide matters in which the value of goods and services was upto Rs. 20 lakhs, in 2019 it was increased to upto Rs. 1 crore. In 2021, by a central notification the pecuniary jurisdiction was reduced, but cases with value of goods and services upto Rs. 50 lakhs are still decided by the district commissions, leading to a heavier caseload.
Consumer expert Jehangir Gai says among the multiple reasons for a delay in concluding cases is the heavy load of cases, though less cases are filed now than in the 90’s. “The workload is still beyond capacity,” he says, adding that the vacancy situation has been an issue since the mid-90s. Narrating the poor situation with resources at the commissions, he says that there is a single stenographer sometimes for the entire commission, and if the person is on leave, the entire commission’s work stops. Gai says he has known of people dropping pursuing their cases midway when they know the number of years it is going to take to conclude. He also speaks about the apathetic attitude of those heading the commissions.
“Most members and presidents are appointed post-retirement, and the salaries are on the basis of the number of hours spent. Because of the backlog, cases pile up. Even those who start enthusiastically, get lax when they see they cannot make much of a difference to the pendencies,” he says.