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More teeth for consumer courts

It has the bark, but lacks the bite. That, however, could change soon, with the consumer courts poised to gain punitive powers to enforce their directives.

The Centre seems all set to amend the Consumer Protection Act to enable consumer courts, like other wings of the judiciary, to attach property and pass interim orders. The aim is to make their orders “easier to implement”. The amendments, already ratified by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, are now with the Rajya Sabha Secretariat after a second round of amendments were suggested, officials said.

The original amendments were prompted by “suggestions for improving the consumer courts’ scope and range”, put forward by three Calcutta-based organisations — the Council of Consumer Guidance Centres, Consumers’ Unity and Guidance Forum and the Bengal Federation of Consumer Organisations. Of the amendments likely to be implemented by the year-end, the one giving every strata of the consumer judiciary — the district forum, the state commission and the national commission — the power to attach property, could prove “the most effective deterrent” against non-compliance of orders, say consumer panels.

Another sub-section of the same amendment proposes even more powers for the consumer courts, allowing them to sell property previously attached, if the offender does not comply with the directives within three months. The courts can compensate the complainant from the proceeds of the sales and can return the balance, if any, to the defaulting defendant.

Another amendment empowers the courts to pass interim orders, “as is just and proper in the facts and circumstances of the case”. This, say officials, will enable the system to give some relief to the harassed consumer even if the dispute drags on.

Two other amendments, however, reflect the functioning of the courts themselves. One seeks to impose a time cap on the courts, asking them to dispose of cases “as expeditiously as possible”, to speed up the justice-delivery system. If a case does not require analysis and laboratory testing of any commodity, it should be disposed of within three months from the date the defendant receives the notice. Five months is the stipulated time-frame for cases that require laboratory testing of substances.

Another proposed amendment empowers a state commission to transfer cases from one district forum to another, irrespective of the geographical origin of the dispute. This, say officials, has become necessary because of the “significant” number of complaints of bias against local courts.

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