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In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court clarified on Wednesday that a consumer forum does not have the discretion to extend the time granted to file a reply to a consumer complaint beyond 45 days, in view of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (New India Assurance Ltd. vs. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Ltd.).
A Constitution Bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, MR Shah, Vineet Saran, Indira Banerjee and Ravindra Bhat held,
The law as clarified by the Supreme Court today is as follows:
the District Forum has no power to extend the time for filing the response to the complaint beyond the period of 15 days in addition to 30 days as is envisaged under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act;
commencing point of limitation of 30 days under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act would be from the date of receipt of the notice accompanied with the complaint by the opposite party, and not mere receipt of the notice of the complaint.
The Court relied substantially on the text of the Consumer Protection Act and regulations under the Act to arrive at its finding.
Pertinently, the following characteristics of consumer forum proceedings bolstered the Court’s conclusion that the legislature had intended that a reply cannot be filed beyond an outer limit of 45 days.
Consequences of failing to adhere to prescribed time limit provided in Consumer Protection Act
Notably, the Bench pointed out that the legislature had allowed consumer proceedings to continue ex-parte if a party does not adhere to the time limits prescribed in Section 13.
Further, Section 13 (3) of the Consumer Protection Act also provides that the consumer fora proceedings cannot be challenged as violative of natural justice principles in such a scenario, where the proceedings are conducted ex-parte.
In other words, not only did the Act provide for clear consequences if the limitation period for filing replies is not adhered to, but it also curtailed any challenge to consumer proceedings if such consequences arose.
“… the intention of the legislature is clear that mere denial of further extension of time for filing the response (by the opposite party) would not amount to denial or violation of the principles of natural justice. This provision of Section 13(3) reinforces the time limit specified in Section 13(2)(a) of the Act ... subSection (2)(b)(ii) of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act clearly provides for the consequence of the complaint to be proceeded ex parte against the opposite party, if the opposite party omits or fails to represent his case within the time given."
Language of Section 13 (2), Consumer Protection Act
On a reading of the Consumer Protection Act and Regulation 10 of the Consumer Protection Regulations, 2005, the Supreme Court found that ordinarily, the opposite party should file a response to a complaint within 30 days. The same can be even less than 30 days, depending upon the circumstances of each case, the Bench observed.
As per Section 13 (2), the consumer forum can extend the time to file a response by a period “not exceeding 15 days”.
This is not the same as the discretion vested with the forum when it comes to other aspects.
For instance, the Bench pointed out that the forum has the discretion to extend the time for filing complaint or appeals beyond the period specified, “if there is sufficient cause given by the party, which has to be to the satisfaction of the concerned authority.”
On the other hand, “No such discretion has been provided for under Section 13(2)(a) of the Consumer Protection Act for filing a response to the complaint beyond the extended period of 45 days (30 days plus 15 days).”
The Court concluded,
“Had the legislature not wanted to make such provision mandatory but only directory, the provision for further extension of the period for filing the response beyond 45 days would have been provided, as has been provided for in the cases of filing of complaint and appeals. To carve out an exception in a specific provision of the statute is not within the jurisdiction of the Courts, and if it is so done, it would amount to legislating or inserting a provision into the statute, which is not permissible.”
No scope for equitable interpretation when intention of legislature is clear
The Court also addressed an argument made that if the consumer forum is not granted the discretion to extend the time beyond 45 days, “grave injustice would be caused” as there could be circumstances beyond the control of the opposite party because of which the opposite party may not be able to file a response within 45 days.
The Bench, however, rejected the submission opining that once the law is clear, there is little scope for equity to interfere. The Court observed,
“It is well settled that law prevails over equity, as equity can only supplement the law, and not supplant it… It is thus settled law that where the provision of the Act is clear and unambiguous, it has no scope for any interpretation on equitable ground.”
The Court added that the overarching intention of the law was the expeditious disposal of consumer cases.
On when the limitation period under Section 13 would start
A related question the Court was called to address was, “Whether the limitation under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act for filing the response by the opposite party to the complaint would commence from the date of receipt of the notice of the complaint by the opposite party, or the receipt of notice accompanied by a copy of the complaint.”
The Court has clarified that,
Recounting the objective underlying the Consumer Protection Act, the Bench also added,
“We may, however, clarify that the objection of not having received a copy of the complaint along with the notice should be raised on the first date itself and not thereafter, otherwise if permitted to be raised at any point later would defeat the very purpose of the Act, which is to provide simple and speedy redressal of consumer disputes.”
[Read the Judgment]