Companies are not willing to invest in efficient after-sales service so long as their sales keep increasing. Newspaper columns can be seen to be full of complaints and many companies do not care to rectify the complaints.
To enable the consumer to have his right to a deal, the consumer protection Act was passed in 1986. The Act promises to rectify all that and make accountant both the manufacture; s and providers of service.
It provides for toe setting up of quasi-judicial bodies at district, state and national label for quick and inexpensive redressal of consumer grievances. Three groups-the consumer, registered voluntary consumer associations and the central and state government is covered by this facility.
In case a group of person is seeking similar redressal, a class action suit can be filed or may be treated as a public interest pentitin. The coverage given by this Act is very wide.
If a group of persons are adversely affected by the cancellation of a train or through consumption of adulterated food, they can go for redressal under this Act. A group of people who did not get buck the amount that they had paid for booking scooters, were awarded double the rate of interest as damages.
Under the Act, a consumer has been defined as a person who buys any good or hires or avails of any service for a consideration. Hospital which offer free service and doctors in hospitals which do not charge their patients are exempt from the Act Goods purchased for commercial purpose are also not covered in the Act except if a person buys the goods to be used; exclusively for the purpose of earning livelihood by means of self-employment.
A consumer can complain against unfair trade practices, defective goods and overcharging. An unfair trade practice means any deceptive or unfair practice, False claims regarding quality of goods and services and bargain sales without reduction of prices, false and misleading advertising, all come in the ambit of this Act.
Other examples of unfair practices are hoarding of goods to extract higher price, conduct of lottery, contest, game of skill or chance for sale promotion, and selling goods which are substandard. Giving of guarantee that is not based on adequate tests, falsely representing any second hand goods or that the seller has a sponsorship which he does not have, are all unfair practices.
Defects have been defined as any fault, imperfection, shortcoming in quality, quantity, purity, potency or standard which is required to be maintained by or under any law for the time being in force, or as is claimed by the trader in any manner whatsoever in reaction to any goods.
Defects in service include the provisions of facilities in connection with banking, finance, insurance, transport, electric supply, hotels, entertainment, and so on. All services provided by professionals such as lawyers, doctors and architects are included, except contracts of personal service between master and servant.
A restrictive trade practice is defined as any trade practice that requires a customer to buy, hire or avail any goods or services as a condition precedent for buying any other goods or services. Thus a dealer who forces someone to buy a gas stove with a gas connection is said to be indulging in a restrictive trade practice.
A time limit of two years has been prescribed in the Act within which a complaint must be filed. A delay in flaring a case can, however, be condoned by the court in exceptional cases. The jurisdiction of the courts has been fixed according to the value of the compensation claimed or the cost of the goods and service in question.
If the cost of goods or services or the compensation being sought is less than Rs. 5 lakh, the complaint has to be field with the District Consumer Redressal Forum, which has been set up in each district in the country.
It must be filed with a forum within the local limits of whose jurisdiction the opposite party resides or carries on business or has a branch office. If the amount in question is over Rs. 5 lakh but within Rs. 20 lakh, the case must be filed before the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission which has established in each state capital.
If it exceeds Rs. 20 lakh, it has to be filed before the National Commission in New Delhi. If a person is not satisfied with the order of the District Forum he can appeal to the State Commission and thereafter, if necessary, to the National Commission. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of the order.
A consumer can simply write down the complaint and attach photocopies of the receipts, bills and other documents and send it to the court. A copy is sent to the opposite party who must reply within 30 days and give their version. A date is fixed for the hearing and to settle the dispute. In case companies do not respond to the summons then the case is decided exporter.
In case the complaint is found to be valid, the opposite party can be directed to: (a) remove the defects or replace the defective goods with new goods, or refund the amount paid for the goods, (b) remove the deficiencies in services, and (c) pay compensation for loss or suffering caused on account of defective goods and services and also pay costs.
If the goods are found to be hazardous, the court can order their withdrawal from the market. It may order the party to discontinue the unfair or restrictive practice. In case the order of the court is not complied with it can award punishment with a minimum imprisonment of one month but which may extend to 3 years.
Fines may also be levied between Rs. 2000 to Rs. 10,000 or both. Frivolouscomplaints are discouraged. In case of such complaints, the complaint may be asked to pay costs not exceeding Rs. 10,000.
Like ordinary civil courts, the consumer courts are also flooded with complaints. The delay in consumer courts has weakened the redressal process and the consumers still have to wait for justice. However, a start has been made and it can be hoped that these courts can be suitably strengthened in the future.
There has been a difference of opinion about the inclusion of doctors within the purview of the CPA. But the recent judgement of the Supreme Court has cleared the issue saying that doctors are providers of services under contract and were under the same obligation to deliver proper service.
As an act of a doctor could endanger lives, he as under full responsibility to treat the patients well. This judgment will enforce a certain amount of accountability in the profession while at the same time cause doctors to practice “defensive medicine”. It is, however, difficult to say as yet about the exact repercussions of the judgment.