Consumer Disputes Redressal Agencies under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986
The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 was enacted with a view “to provide for the better protection of the interests of consumers and for that purpose to make provision for the establishment of consumer councils and other authorities for the settlement of consumers’ disputes.” The Act is divided into several parts, out of which Part III deals with the subject of Consumer Disputes Redressal Agencies. The Chapter discusses at length, the establishment, composition, jurisdiction and powers of the three consumer disputes redressal agencies - first, the District Forum, second, the State Commission, and lastly, the National Commission. The article shall deal with all of these agencies in the forthcoming sections.
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 provided for the establishment of these agencies at various tiers in a bid to ensure that consumers receive speedy and swift redressal of their complaints, without the hassle of having to wait for years altogether and spend hefty sums in litigation. Another incidental benefit of constituting these agencies was found to be in the form of the consequent reduction of caseload upon the civil courts. Section 09 of the Act mandates the establishment of these agencies. According to this section, the State Government is to establish at least one District Forum in each district along with a State Commission, whereas the Central Government is to set up the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
At the bottom of the hierarchy lie the District Forums. Section 10(1) provides for the composition of this Forum. Broadly speaking, there is to be a President of the Forum, who is, or has been, or is qualified to become a District Judge. Further, there are to be two members, one of whom must be a woman, who meet certain requirements such as being over the age of thirty-five and possessing experience of at least ten years in dealing with problems of law, economics, commerce etc. Each of these appointments is to be made by the State Government on the recommendation of a Committee comprising, 1) President of the State Forum, 2) Secretary, Law Department of the State, and 3) Secretary incharge of the Consumer Affairs Department of the State. The term of office for the members of the Forum is for five years, or upto the age of sixty-five, whichever occurs earlier.
Section 11 of the Act pertains to the jurisdiction of the Forum, which extends to those complaints where the value of the goods and services, or the compensation amount claimed, does not exceed twenty lakhs. Only those complaints can be entertained by the Forum which fall within its local limits. Next, section(s) 12 and 13 lay down the procedure to be followed in filing a complaint and subsequently, dealing with the said complaint by the Forum.
The District Forum, in certain aspects, has been conferred with the power of a Civil Court as provided under the Code of Civil Procedure. These aspects are: (i) the summoning and enforcing the attendance of any defendant or witness and examining the witness on oath; (ii) the discovery and production of any document or other material object producible as evidence; (iii) the reception of evidence on affidavits; (iv) the requisitioning of the report of the concerned analysis or test from the appropriate laboratory or from any other relevant source; (v) issuing of any commission for the examination of any witness; and (vi) any other matter which may be prescribed.
Finally, if the Forum arrives at the opinion that the allegations of the complainant are justified, then it can issue an order under Section 14(1) of the Act. Through such an order, the defendant can be ordered, among others, to do the following: (a) to remove the defect pointed out by the appropriate laboratory from the goods in question; (b) to replace the goods with new goods of similar description which shall be free from any defect; (c) to return to the complainant the price, or, as the case may be, the charges paid by the complainant; (d) to pay such amount as may be awarded by it as compensation to the consumer for any loss or injury suffered by the consumer due to the negligence of the opposite party.
The State Commission, under Section 16, is composed of a President, who is or has been a judge of the High Court, and two other members with requirements analogous to those of the members of a District Forum, as have been specified earlier. The Committee responsible for recommending such names for appointment is also the same as that for the District Forum. However, the appointment of the President is made in consultation with the Chief Justice of the High Court. The term of office of the members is of five years or up to the age of sixty-seven, whichever occurs earlier. The procedure to be followed by the Commission is similar to that to be followed by the District Forum under Section(s) 12, 13 and 14 of the Act.
The jurisdiction of the State Commission extends to cover suits of values ranging between twenty lakhs and one crore. The Commission also entertains appeals arising from orders of any of the District Forums in the State. An appeal can be made before the State Commission within thirty days of the order of the District Forum. The Commission also enjoys a form of revisional jurisdiction wherein it can “call for the records and pass appropriate orders in any consumer dispute which is pending before or has been decided by any District Forum within the State, where it appears to the State Commission that such District Forum has exercised a jurisdiction not vested in it by law, or has failed to exercise a jurisdiction so vested or has acted in exercise of its jurisdiction illegally or with material irregularity.”
National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission
The NCDRC lies atop the hierarchy of consumer dispute redressal agencies and is considered as the apex body relating to consumer disputes. The composition of the Commission is mandated under Section 20(1) of the Act as follows: a person who is or has been a Judge of the Supreme Court, to be appointed by the Central Government, who shall be its President; and four others members, one of whom shall be a woman, who must meet certain requirements laid down by the provision. Recommendations to the Central Government are made by a Selection Committee comprising a Supreme Court judge, who has been nominated by the Chief Justice of India; the Secretary in the department of Legal Affairs; and the Secretary of the department of Consumer Affairs.
The jurisdiction of the NCDRC extends to entertain those suits whose value exceeds the figure of one crore rupees. The Commission also hears appeals against the orders of the various State Commissions, where it appears to the National Commission that such State Commission has exercised a jurisdiction not vested in it by law, or has failed to exercise a jurisdiction so vested, or has acted in the exercise of its jurisdiction illegally or with material irregularity.
Section 22 of the Act specifies that the power and procedures applicable to the NCDRC are similar to those mandated by Section(s) 12, 13 and 14 for the District Forum. The National Commission also has the power to review any order made by it, when there is an error apparent on the face of record. Further, Section 23 lays down that any person aggrieved with the order of the Commission can prefer an appeal before the Supreme Court of India within thirty-days of the date of the order.
Section 24B provides that the NCDRC shall have administrative control over the State Commissions, and the State Commissions over the District Forums, in the following matters: (i) calling for periodical returns regarding the institution, disposal, pendency of cases; (ii) issuance of instructions regarding adoption of uniform procedure in the hearing of matters, prior service of copies of documents produced by one party to the opposite parties, furnishing of English translation of judgments written in any language, speedy grant of copies of documents; (iii) generally overseeing the functioning of the State Commissions or the District Fora to ensure that the objects and purposes of the Act are best served without in any way interfering with their quasi-judicial freedom.
Therefore, there exists a well-defined hierarchy of agencies for the proper functioning of the consumer disputes redressal system under the Consumer Disputes Act, 1986.