The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Consumer redress speed-breakers to be fined

Calcutta, Sept. 18: Number of cases pending in the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission: more than 2,200.

Number of cases pending in the Calcutta District Consumer Disputes Redressal Fora: around 1,500.

Worried about the number of cases piling up in consumer fora throughout the country, the Supreme Court has given consumer courts the go-ahead to impose fines on litigants who appear to drag cases by seeking “adjournment on one ground or other”.

The apex court delivered the judgment, which it itself has called “landmark”, after listing the reasons for the apparent defeat of purpose, of setting up the consumer courts — to provide speedy justice to the aggrieved.

The order came in a case that reached the Supreme Court nine years after the original complaint was filed. The court has suggested several measures that, if implemented, may bring succour to aggrieved consumers or framed sellers.

The judgment, besides pointing out the commonest excuses used by litigants for delay, has also asked the administration to look inwards. “We hope the National Commission president will draw the government’s attention to see that the purpose of the (Consumer Protection) Act is not defeated,” the three-member bench of Justices M.B. Shah, B.P. Singh and H.K. Sema said.

Besides pointing out the administrative lacunae — “delay in appointing chairmen and members” of consumer courts, “not providing adequate infrastructure”, “heavy work-load” and “procedural delays” — the judges listed some remedies that could be ensured by the internal mechanism of the consumer courts.

The most effective deterrent to the tendency of dragging cases when things get difficult in court is the green signal to “levy heavy cost where adjournment is sought on one ground or the other”, feel consumer activists here.

“Only the fear of heavy financial loss can bring a semblance of urgency in many litigants,” said Consumers’ Unity and Guidance Forum spokesperson Prabir Basu.

The three-member Supreme Court bench also pointed out, what they felt was the most frequently used excuse to prolong a case: delay in filing the counter-affidavits by the service-provider hauled to court.

The Supreme Court limited the time needed for filing a counter-affidavit to 30 days or an “extended period not exceeding 15 more days” and asked all consumer courts to “adhere strictly” to the time-frame.

The legislative mandate of disposing of cases within the stipulated time of three or five months would be defeated if this was not done, the judges pointed out.

Another common tactic used to prolong the route to justice, was the delay in filing of supportive documents during the legal battle, the judges noted. “The commission can insist on production of all documents, along with the complaint and the version of the defence,” they said.

To get across procedural delays, consumer courts could also rely upon video-conferencing or tele-conferencing for cross-examination of witnesses or experts, the Supreme Court verdict said, adding that this procedure would be most helpful in cross-examining medical experts in cases of medical negligence.

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