The Power of the Commission
Many a times it is said that the consumer courts do not have teeth, that they pass judgements but are not able to enforce them effectively. However, it is to be noted that the most powerful provisions in the Consumer Protection Act is about the enforcement of the orders passed under Section 27. Consumer courts have the powers of a first-class magistrate to impose penalty up to Rs 3,000, coupled with up to three years’ imprisonment in case of non-compliance with the consumer court order.
In 1996, not just the existence of consumer forums but the Consumer Protection Act itself was challenged before the court of law and its legal validity was questioned when a big businessman was ordered to be sent to jail for non-compliance with the forum’s order. Questions were raised as to whether Lok Sabha was empowered to pass such an Act by which consumer forums could run as a parallel judicial system against the civil courts, and with much more discretionary powers too.
The matter was resolved by the Supreme Court in the case of Vishwabharti House Building CoOperative Society versus Karnataka State & others in 2002. The Supreme Court held that the Consumer Protection Act was a constitutionally valid law passed by the Lok Sabha, and that parliament was competent to enact such welfare legislation. Further, the forums constituted under this Act were competent to perform the work assigned to them in all respects .These forums could also invoke the provisions of Section 27 of the Act for execution of their order. Legal issues raised by the complainant were around these two aspects: Act was unconstitutional and running as parallel judiciary to civil courts, which was against the provisions of the Constitution. Order of the consumer forum should be sent for execution under Section 25 to civil court, and Section 27 of the Act is illegal.
High court in its judgement held that: The Act was not unconstitutional. The order for compliance should be sent to civil
court for execution. The Act was made under the provisions of the Constitution’s Schedule VII, Article 246, wherein it was said that parliament could constitute any judicial system other than Supreme Court and high courts. Since the procedure was laid down in the Act itself under Section 13 as a summary procedure, execution was also to be done under summary procedure. Hence, Section 27 was very much valid, while Section 25 gave an option to the consumer to go to the civil court for execution of the order passed by the consumer forum.
This judgement by the Supreme Court of India cleared a big obstacle that was holding back action against medical professionals in negligence cases. In the case of Dr JJ Merchant and others versus Shrinath Chaturvedi, doctors had questioned the competency of consumer forums to deal with professional matters, stating that members of the forums were not experts in the medical area.
While deciding this case in 2002, the apex court clarified a significant point: “Consumer forums can take evidence, cross evidence through affidavits, can appoint local commissioner and can obtain expert opinions on the subject…” It further said that three members in the forum could at the most be experts in three areas only and it would be impossible for any court to decide cases if experts in every field had to be there among judges.
The number of other cases following this judgement further confirmed that the medical profession was also answerable in consumer courts.