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A fistful of redress
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A fistful of redress
Namit Gupta
Posted online: Saturday , July 15, 2006 at 1134 IST
The year is 2003. American doctor Ernest Greenberg of Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital gets permission to testify via videoconference in a case of criminal negligence in a Mumbai court. Which means Greenberg doesnít have to come down to Mumbai to testify. He can do so sitting in the US.

The plaintiff in this case: 79-year-old retired civil servant P.C. Singhi. The respondent: Dr Praful Desai of Bombay Hospital. The complaint: Singhiís wife, Leela, died due to negligence and wrong medical advice by Desai. While the verdict is pending, the case is the first in the history of Indian justice to permit a witness to testify without being physically present in court.

Singhi is a highly aware citizen who has also filed several cases in consumer forums involving deficient services. One of his earlier cases was against Indian Airlines for serving stale snacks on a flight from Ahmedabad to Kolkata he got Rs 2,000 plus Rs 1,000 as costs. In another case against Western Railway for deficient services on a journey between Ahmedabad and Jaipur, he got Rs 1,000 (with 9 per cent interest from the date the case was filed) and Rs 500 as costs.

A general grouse the average Indian has about our legal system is that while the laws are adequate, the enforcement machinery isnít. While that may still be true in many cases, consumer law has been strengthening its justice delivery system to protect your interests against the unscrupulous practices of a range of goods and services providers from your local grocer to corporates with considerable financial muscle offering you redress for the smallest discomfort.

Consumer forum

Arguably the best grievance redress machinery available to you, the consumer forum offers you substantial relief if the goods or services you have bought are defective in terms of quality, quantity, and standards, or are otherwise inadequate.

Scope. The forum covers practically all categories of service providers and manufacturers, and can be used by a single consumer or a group or a voluntary consumer association. You can also fight your case if you have made partial payment for the goods or services in question. Remember, though, that the forum is strictly consumer-centric, so goods or services used commercially or resold arenít covered under this platform but under a civil court.

Filing a case. The forum consists of three tiers: the district forum, the state commission and the National Commission (New Delhi). Which level you approach will depend on the value of the goods/services youíve bought and the compensation you seek, and the place where the cause of action arises (See table: Consumer forum fees). There are more than 500 district forums across the country, and one state commission in each state and union territory, while the National Commission is located in New Delhi. Check out the website of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission ( for a comprehensive list of forums and commissions to see where you should apply. Once youíve decided to go legal, follow these steps:

ē Send a notice to the manufacturer or the service provider, either by courier, fax, registered post or certificate of posting. You can also deliver it by hand, but you must ensure you get an acknowledgement.

ē If your notice is ignored, file a complaint addressed to the appropriate tier of forum, mentioning your name, description and address, along with similar details of the offender. The compliant must explain the facts and circumstances of the case like where, when, nature of defect and must be supported by adequate documentary evidence of your allegations, like cash memo, warranty card and correspondence entered into.

ē You donít need stamp paper to file your complaint. Plain paper bearing your signature on every sheet can be submitted. Submit your complaint in four copies, plus a copy each for your opponent.

Remember, you must file your complaint within two years from the date you discovered the deficiency in the product or service, or it wonít be entertained.

Cost. Relax. You donít need a legal eagle to fight your battle. Since you can do it alone, thereís a big saving here. The filing fees arenít a strain on the pocket either, and range between Rs 100 and Rs 5,000 (See table: Consumer forum fees).

Relief. Verdicts are delivered quickly usually a year. However, argues Arun Saxena, president, International Consumer Rights Protection Council , a non-government organisation: ďIn some states it could take longer, as a large number of cases have been filed.

Although steps are being taken to ensure speedy justice, some 420,000 cases are still pending in various forums and commissions across the country.Ē
Still, a consumer court is much quicker than a civil court in delivering justice.

The best part is that a consumer court works like a judicial authority. It not only has the powers to order the removal and replacement of goods and services, along with a refund of the consideration paid, but it can also award compensation for distress, loss or injury suffered due to the defect, in addition to making awards for parties based on costs. The cherry on the pie: if, after the entire process of appeals has been done with, your opponent decides to take his own sweet time to honour the verdict, he can invite criminal prosecution.

  Economy, reach, scope and quick justice make the consumer forum ideal for having your grievance redressed
Appeal. Not satisfied with the forumís verdict? You can appeal to the next level (state commission and National Commission, respectively) within 30 days of the order without paying any additional fees. If the National Commission disappoints you, the Supreme Court is also available for appeal.

Nothing stops the manufacturer or service provider from appealing either. But letís draw guidance from Vinay Guptaís experience. This 35-year-old resident of Delhi and his family filed a case in the National Commission against the Ansal Group in 2001 for failing to give possession of a property, for which the family had been paying instalments regularly since 1997.

The Commission awarded them with a full refund of Rs 18.7 lakh along with interest at 18 per cent per annum. When the Ansal group approached the apex court, it was asked to first return the Rs 18.5 lakh that the Guptas had paid, before hearing its case on the interest component. The matter is still pending. Says Saxena of ICPRC: ďAn errant provider will be apprehensive about approaching the apex court if the amount of compensation doesnít justify the cost of extended litigation.Ē

Limitations. The consumer forum typically handles only those complaints regarding deficiency in products and services that have been paid for. In essence the customer-vendor relationship has to be established, and complaints against, say, a ration card office and passport authorities fall outside its purview. However, the good news is that a Supreme Court ruling has brought the Provident Fund Commissioner, whose office is a source of agony for many, under its ambit.

Another limitation is the place of filing a complaint. Says Saxena: ďA consumer can file a case only in the location where the cause of action arose.Ē So if you live in, say, Nashik, you cannot file your complaint in your hometown against a vendor in Kolkata from whom you bought goods while on a visit to that city. Youíll have to go to Kolkata. Also remember, the forum takes a serious view of frivolous litigation and can impose a fine of up to Rs 10,000 on a person for filing cases with mischievous intent.

Sectoral machinery

P.C. Singhi, a 79-year-old retired civil servant, has filed several cases in consumer forums across the country, without engaging the services of a lawyer. Some of the cases he has won include one against Indian Airlines for providing stale food on a flight, and another against Western Railway for deficient services.
Apart from the consumer forum, there are special machineries for grievance redress catering to specific sectors like banking, insurance, retailing, telephony, and food, drugs and cosmetics (See box: Who to go to for which complaint)

The procedure for filing a complaint is simple in most cases a plain paper application along with evidence in support of your claim will suffice. There is usually no fee, though some like the Monopolies & Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) charge a nominal amount.

And justice in some cases is delivered very quickly. For instance, if your grocer or the local supermarket charges you more than the MRP, simply take your case to the Assistant Controller of Legal Metrology. Normally, his office will respond within 10 days, make trap purchases and apprehend the retailer.

The downside: while justice is quick and cheap, the order is usually binding. For instance, you will find it difficult to go to the consumer forum if you arenít satisfied with the order of a banking ombudsman you will have to go to the courts. In any case, the banking ombudsman can only handle disputes involving a compensation of up to Rs 10 lakh. Another aspect is reach. While the MRTPC is located in Delhi, there are only 15 banking ombudsmen in the country, compared to 500-plus district forums and 30-odd state commissions. Then, there is the question of awareness. While the banking and insurance redress machineries, and telephone adalats have been widely publicised, most people will find it difficult to locate, say, the department of legal metrology.

The consumer forum is a better option for its reach, focus on personal justice delivery and all-encompassing nature. It handles all complaints that can otherwise be filed with sectoral machineries and more. And it doesnít even require you be a legal eagle or a crusader like Singhi.

ĎConsumer forum is the best optioní

Arun Saxena president, ICRPC

How aware is the average consumer of his rights? Isnít he generally afraid of the big guy and doesnít easily trust the justice delivery machinery?
Most people are aware the consumer forum has something to do with complaints about defective goods and services. But theyíre not clear about the kind of goods and services it covers. And yes, most feel the vendor has financial muscle, and will be too powerful for them.

How does the consumer forum fare vis-ŗ-vis sector-specific redress machineries, like the FDA or Assistant Controller of Legal Metrology, which usually deliver faster and cost much less?
The consumer forum is still the best option for several reasons. Firstly, it has both civil and criminal powers. An errant vendor can invite criminal prosecution if he disregards its orders. Secondly, it is economical, as you donít need a lawyer. Thirdly, it is easily accessible as consumer forums are located in all districts. Fourthly, itís a single window of redress, so you can drag a bank, insurer, supermarket, telephone company anyone who causes you grief to the consumer court.

But if a consumer loses a case at the National Commission, her only option is the Supreme Court. Thatís an expensive proposition for her, but not necessarily for an errant vendor.
Yes, going to the Supreme Court is expensive. But you only have to go through case studies to see how PSUs, government departments and large companies with loads of clout have had cases going against them. And mind you, even vendors will be apprehensive about approaching the apex court if the amount of compensation doesnít justify the cost of extended litigation.

The forum was set up to settle cases quickly. That doesnít seem to be happening anymore.
While a grievance should be addressed quickly, in certain states, it takes longer due to several of pending cases. In fact, some 420,000 complaints are still being heard in courts across India. But that problem is being sorted out slowly.

Who to go to for which complaint
 Errant party Complaint Redress authority

 Banks Service deficiency in loans (including plastic money) and Banking ombudsman 2
deposits, imposing charges sans prior information, use of collection agents 1, not honouring promises made by DSAs, etc. Banking ombudsman 2 

Life/general ambiguity  Non-settlement or delay in settlement of claims, insurers in policy terms, etc.  Insurance ombudsman  

Pharmaceutical, food or cosmetic manufacturers Adulterated/spurious food, cosmetic or medicine; or
prepared from banned inputs e.g. carbide gas for artificially ripening fruit, use of non-food dyes in flavouring and colouring food items  State Food & drug Administration 

Retail outlets Billing above MRP, using non standard weights and measures  Asst. Controller of Legal Metrology(one in each state) 

All vendors Misleading ads/product labels or features, bargain sales/discounts/prizes etc not in line with promo ad, etc  MRTPC 3, New Delhi 

MTNL/BSNL Wrong billing (landline or cell), repair delays, unsatisfactory
redressal of complaint by concerned officer, etc Telephone Adalat 

Also file police complaint recovery through agents is illegal ; 2 For relief of up to Rs 10 lakh, else approach consumer court; 3 Monopolies & Restrictive Trade Practices Commission



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