ISSUE Speedy redressal of cases is the need of the day. But the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act 1986 are not being followed in spirit

With the Consumer Protection Act 1986 providing for speedy redressal — Effort to dispose of cases within three months (where testing is not required) or within five months (where analysis/ testing of commodities is required) from date of receipt of notice by opposite party; and no adjournment shall ordinarily be granted — the members of Vihaan Flat Owners' Association (a registered one), had great hopes when they filed a complaint against the builder for deficiency in services, in the District Forum, in 1992.

The District Forum and the State Commission dismissed the complaint on the grounds that they were not consumers as defined under the Act. Therefore, an appeal was filed in the National Commission at Delhi. The authorised representative of the association had business interests in Delhi and, therefore, was able to make appearances during hearings.

The National Commission finally decided that the association was indeed a consumer, and the complaint was sent to the District Forum for further hearing. This was in 2002, a whole 10 years after the complaint was filed!

The complaint was heard by the District Forum and compensation of Rs. 3 lakh along with costs was awarded.

The builder appealed to the State Commission, and recently, in contravention of the National Commission's Order, the State Commission dismissed the case once again, stating that they were not consumers. This took another eight years!

Now, to prefer an appeal in the National Commission, the members have one other major problem — the authorised person who appeared for the hearings in the National Commission is no longer alive and the others are not in a position to take time off work frequently. Moreover, travelling back and forth to Delhi is no easy task, not to mention the costs involved!

Twin issues

There are two issues here that need to be addressed on a priority basis — the inordinate delay and the very fact that the National Commission has to be approached. Undue delays in disposal of cases defeat the basic objective of the Act, and unless the law is implemented in its fullest sense, it loses the very purpose of being a consumer-friendly legislation. It is high time the operating mode of the Consumer Courts is revamped to avoid gratuitous delays.

With regard to the second issue, Section 22C of the Consumer Protection Act provides for Circuit Benches, and the Central Government, in 2004, has notified that the National Commission can perform its functions at a few places other than New Delhi, including Chennai. However, very rarely do we see circuit benches here, and consumers are compelled to go to New Delhi for each hearing, making the procedure a highly complex, tedious and costly affair. There is an urgent need for authorities to look into the matter and either ensure that these Circuit Benches function in States at least four times a year to begin with, or consider amendment to the Consumer Protection Act for setting up of Permanent Benches of the National Commission in States, benefitting aggrieved consumers.

(The writer works with CAG, which offers free advice on consumer complaints to its members. For membership details/queries, contact 24914358/24460387 or helpdesk@cag.org.in)