Are frequent adjournments killing the spirit of consumer law?
Prakash Krishna Rao was 64 when he first approached the consumer court for resolution of his complaint. He is 70 now, and there is still no finality to his case.
His original complaint took two years, instead of the promised three months at the district consumer disputes redressal commission in Mangaluru, Karnataka.. Eventually he won the case, but the joy was short-lived. The manufacturer went in appeal before the state consumer disputes redressal commission in Bengaluru, and here the case dragged on for four years. Thanks to constant adjournments, he says he had to travel from his home in Mangaluru to Bengaluru 20 times during this period. This is despite the fact that he is a senior citizen who is entitled to quicker settlement of his dispute.
Repeated adjournments sought by lawyers and sanctioned by those adjudicating over the complaints, have in the last three decades destroyed the very concept of consumer courts envisaged by the law makers and defeated the very raison d’etre of these courts, created as an alternative to the long and complicated process of justice before the civil courts. Since several studies sponsored by the union ministry of consumer affairs and conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) had shown ‘repeated adjournments’ as one of the main causes of delay, the Consumer Protection Act of 2019 that replaced the 1986 law should have strictly prohibited adjournments or provided for it only in the rarest of rare cases and limited to just one , with a highly deterrent financial penalty (not just costs) to be borne by the party asking for it.
But unfortunately, like the 1986 Act, the 2019 law too pussyfoots on the subject. So it merely says: “….no adjournment shall ordinarily be granted , unless sufficient cause is shown and the reasons for grant of adjournment have been recorded in writing by such commission”. Obviously, the line between what is ordinary and what is extraordinary has got totally blurred. And the word “no” has completely been ignored. So ‘adjournments shall ordinarily be granted’ has become the practice.
In its latest analysis of the working of the consumer courts published last year, the IIPA blames adjournments as the biggest contributor to delays in the process of consumer justice. In as many as 71.8 per cent of the cases, adjournments, often given for frivolous reasons, unnecessarily prolonged the time taken for adjudication , says IIPA. While in 18.4 percent of the cases the adjournments were less than three, in 25.6 percent of the cases, they were more than seven!
The advocates are not only responsible for frequent postponement of the hearings, but also for bringing with them, all the trappings of the civil courts. As per the IIPA evaluation, in 61.6 per cent of the cases, involvement of the advocates contributed to delays. Unnecessary technical procedures too led to slow-down in 26.5 per cent of cases, while lack of quorum or vacancies in the posts of adjudicating members contributed to disruptions in the process of justice in 34.9 per cent of the complaints. Poor product testing facilities also led to discontinuity in the proceedings in 34.3 per cent of the cases. It is no wonder that between 2016-2019, only 24.3 percent of complaints were disposed of within the mandated 90 days!
The CP Act of 2019 requires several amendments to improve the performance of consumer courts. To start with, the government should bring in two urgent amendments. While one is to stop the biggest impediment to speedy justice, adjournments; the other is to ensure that all complaints where the value of goods or services is below ₹2 lakh, are heard without lawyers. There should be strictly no adjournments nor appeals in these cases and they must be decided within the mandated 90 days, so that to begin with, consumer justice becomes a reality at least in respect of complaints of low value.