Supreme Court criticises the functioning of consumer courts
A writ petition was filed in Supreme Court (SC) in 2002 after hearing and finding due importance/need for the protection of consumers’ interest, it was merged with civil appeal no. 2740/2007. This matter was heard by Supreme Court on 14 January 2016, following which it constituted a committee headed by Retd Justice Arijit Pasayat. The committee commenced its work in February 2016 and made an assessment of prevailing conditions by visiting the states of Orissa, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand. The experts analysed the prevailing position at the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission as well as the State Commission in New Delhi. This report was submitted to the Supreme Court, which heard the parties and passed the order criticising the functioning of consumer courts. It also made suggestions to remove the shortcomings pointed out. These shortcomings are summarised here:
a) Absence of uniform pattern: The rules for appointment of members of consumer court are prescribed in Section 16 (2) for state and Section 10 (1) (b) for district. But due to lack of uniformity of rules, there is no uniform pattern – resulting in a wide variation in standards, a great deal of subjectivity, and bureaucratic and political interference in the appointment of non-judicial members to consumer courts.
b) Pathetic state of infrastructure/inadequate infrastructure: The committee observes that the fora constituted do not function as effectively as expected due to poor organisational set-up, grossly inadequate infrastructure, absence of adequate and trained manpower, and lack of qualified members in adjudicating bodies. This has resulted in inefficiency and delays.
c) Irregular sittings of consumer court: In many cases, benches of state and district fora sit for barely two to three hours everyday and remain non-functional for months due to lack of quorum. This indicates an unprofessional attitude and results in delayed consumer justice.
d) Quality of presiding members: There is a lot political and bureaucratic interference in appointment of former judicial officers.
e) No uniform process of selection: Every state has their own process of selection of members. A great deal of subjectivity and bureaucratic and political interference has been noted in the committee’s report to the Supreme Court. The committee also suggested that the central government should make a uniform process of selection – one that is applicable in all the states.
f) Non-qualified members: One of the reasons for this is the low remuneration being paid to nonjudicial members of consumer fora. It is too meagre to attract qualified talent. Most of the non-judicial members are not even capable of writing or dictating small orders. At certain places, non-judicial members act in unison against the presiding officer, while passing orders contrary to law, damaging the reputation of the adjudicating body. The committee has observed that the key problems are: (i) absence of proper remuneration, (ii) appointment of former judicial officers who lack motivation and zeal; (iii) appointment of practising lawyers as presiding officers of district fora; and (iv) political and bureaucratic interference in appointments.