The popular maxim "Consumer is King", may not hold ground when it comes to consumer courts in India. Vacancies at these bodies could be one of the reasons for the increasing pendency of consumer cases in the country. Technical and procedural issues, coupled with inadequate benches at district levels, seem to have added to the delay in grievance redressal.
Though filling up the vacancies may partly ease the burden, factors such as adjournments and technical impediments, as pointed out by lawyers, have slowed justice dispensation in consumer courts.
Recent data pertaining to the NCDRC and the State Commissions showed a steady rise in the pendency of cases.
In 2017, there were 9,106 pending cases before the NCRDRC, which doubled to 18,273 in 2019. Some of the major state commissions also showed an upward trend of pending cases in the last five years.
Kolkata-based lawyer Debapriya Mukherjee pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped things.
“But the situation was not any better before also. On average, a particular case takes 6-7 months or maybe more,” she said.
One of the reasons for the slow disposal rate of consumer cases in West Bengal, Mukherjee highlighted, was the existence of only one district forum in each district.
“Kolkata has more district commissions compared to other districts. A fewer commissions in districts, which see substantial number of cases, result in lesser disposals and higher pendency,” she said.
At present, a state commission’s pecuniary jurisdiction allows it to adjudicate disputes exceeding ₹1 crore but less than ₹10 crore.
“Majority of the consumer cases are less than ₹1 crore. The district commissions see substantial cases where the dispute amounts are lesser. And even when there is an order but its execution does not happen, and involves bout of struggle, the purpose of speedy justice is defeated,” she added.
According to data, the West Bengal State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission reflected a considerable drop in the disposal rate in recent times.
And Delhi is not far behind. As of September 29, 2021, the Delhi State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission saw 91% adjournments of the total cases heard. In addition, there was a 20% fall in the disposal of cases in 2018 compared to the previous year. Although 2019 witnessed a marginal rise of 6% in case disposal, 2020, when the pandemic hit, witnessed a substantial decline of 64% from the previous year.
Vaibhav Kumar, who practices in the national capital’s consumer courts, said that the consumer redressal is grappling with “multifold” problems. From an administrative perspective, he opined, what was supposed to be a summary and expeditious procedure has become a “long-winded, multi-year” process.
According to Kumar, there were numerous reasons for this, including the fact that the commissions were functioning like courts, as opposed to what was envisaged.
“One particularly absurd process that comes to mind is the tendency for them to require parties to file ‘affidavits of admission/denial’ and ‘affidavits in evidence’ which is 99.9% regurgitation of each party's pleadings,” he argued.
The adoption of the process from the civil procedure, he said, was without a thought, illustrating that if an “affidavit in evidence” is not subject to cross-examination (which it isn't in district commission) then it has no value in law in the first place.
“Why have procedures that add nothing whatsoever to the adjudication/justice process, and only delay cases?” asked Kumar.
As someone who frequents consumer courts, Kumar beseeched the framers of the law to take a careful look at the current practices in consultation with the Bar for reform. He also suggested the induction of younger members at commissions at the state and the district level.
“In the current form, most lawyers practicing in consumer courts would admit that the procedures are needlessly complicated, bureaucratic and opaque. We need to take inspiration from other jurisdictions like the US where class action lawsuits are robust remedies when it comes to an errant goods/service providers. The Act should be amended to provide a robust consumer-friendly mechanism for consumers to file class-action proceedings,” he said.
Kumar emphasised on internalising the doctrine of restitution at the level of the district consumer commissions. Another difficulty he faced was that clients, who preferred consumer courts over other legal remedies, ended up “deeply demoralised” as the final outcome took much longer than expected.
“What is particularly demoralising for both the advocate and the litigant is that particularly in consumer forums, the length of adjournments are ludicrously long. For instance, lawyers recently reported that matters listed in September 2021 in the NCDRC were being adjourned to September 2022,” he said.
Kumar now advises friends and family to avoid filing consumer cases.
“‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is an adage we all love to quote, but it needs to be internalised at the consumer forum level. In my personal experience, approaching the errant service provider through direct letters/through social media or (if those fail) through legal notices is more likely to result in an optimum outcome than filing a case in the consumer fora."
In NCDRC, for every 100 cases heard in 2017, there were 87 adjournments. In 2019, almost 90% of the total cases heard were adjourned. In 2021, the adjournments have risen to 97% - 47,655 adjournments have taken place in 49,333 cases heard as on September 29, 2021.
“Adjournments sought by the counsels, and the long dates by the commissions thereafter, is another reason for the delay. In fact, in one of my matters, the NCDRC have given a 13-month long adjournment, merely on the ground that the arguing counsel of the opposite party married recently,” said Delhi lawyer Kumar Deepraj.
He argued that the delay in disposing of matters at consumer courts defeats the objective of the enactment of the consumer protection laws - whether the erstwhile Act of 1986 or the newly-enacted Act of 2019.
“Despite keeping a matter for final hearing, it is being regularly observed that the National Commission, rather than hearing the matter on the scheduled date, simply adjourns the matter for months. Deficiency of members may be the reason for giving year-long adjournments, but the same cannot be with the case of NCDRC,” he said.
Referring to a news report dated August 5, 2021, Deepraj underscored that the vacancies at the NCDRC were only of 3 technical members.
“Hence the same can never be a ground of giving such long dates,” he said, substantiating his point.
According to the lawyer, 5-6 year-old cases were pending adjudication. His views on execution of orders of consumer courts mirrored those of Mukherjee’s.
“A consumer has to spend years before his matter is decided, and finally when there is an order in their favour, the execution takes another one or two years,” he said.
He proposed doing away with the practice of calling for an evidence affidavit or for that matter admission or denial of documents, which, according to him, are the primary reasons for the delay in adjudication.
“A practice of keeping the matter for final hearing after 45 days from the date of receipt of summons by the opposite party must be adopted and a time limit should be given to each party for completing the arguments. If the commission opines, 3–5-pages of written submissions may be submitted by the parties. This practice will expedite disposal of the consumer complaints and will serve the legislative purpose,” noted Deepraj.
Among states, the Karnataka State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission showed one of the highest adjournments in 2021. The pendency here has risen from 5,229 cases in 2017 to 10,479 in 2021.
Bangalore-based lawyer AN Krishnaswamy opined that there was no doubt that consumer courts are attracting litigants, which is reflected from the sheer number of cases being filed. According to the lawyer, on an average, 150-200 cases are filed in Bangalore.
However, he also agreed that frequent adjournments, inadequate infrastructure and the lack of urgency shown to hear cases are few of the reasons behind the growing pendency.
He pointed out that akin to Lok Adalats, where cases are mutually settled between interested parties through mediation, a method could be adopted to lessen the burden on the national and state commissions.
According to the lawyer, the situation with adjournments has worsened in the last 10-12 years. “Before that, the situation was better,” he said.
The Other Side
A source from a District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission of one of the states pointed out multiple issues that surround the determination of consumer cases.
“There are factors such as administrative and infrastructural inadequacies that hamper hearings and case disposal. What can judicial members do when they don’t have adequate support staff?” the source said.
According to the source, members at commissions are often faced with lack of stenographers and other staff.
“There are also lawyers seeking adjournments and long dates. So it can’t be said that there is a particular reason behind the pendency,” the source added.
Give the multifarious reasons behind the prevailing pendency in consumer courts, a constructive way could be to start off with reviewing the situation at the very basic level of district commissions and scaling to the state and national levels besides considering suggestions from the various stakeholders.