Supreme Court crit­i­cises the func­tion­ing of con­sumer courts

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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.

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