In several cases, the apex consumer court has made it clear that lawyers are as liable as doctors or any other professionals for negligence in providing their professional services. Yet, lawyers continue to fight against it and what’s worse, some consumer courts at the district and the state level even help them by giving orders that are not in line with the settled law on the issue.
This is exactly what happened last year. The Delhi Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, in its order dated March 10, 2006, held that services rendered by lawyers wouldn’t come within the ambit of the Consumer Protection Act. The state commission’s reasoning was that when a client hires a lawyer, it is a unilateral contract executed by the client giving authority to the lawyer to appear and represent the matter on his behalf without any specific assurance or undertaking. Therefore, lawyers were not liable for deficient or negligent service.
This order has now been set aside by the apex consumer court. While doing so, it has clarified that a client has every right to take the lawyer to consumer court if he failed to do what was expected of him. In fact, the apex consumer court has mentioned two grounds on which a lawyer can be hauled up for negligence: (1) if he did not possess the legal skills which he claimed to possess and (2) he did not exercise with reasonable competence the skills that he did possess.
Dismissing the order of the state commission as “totally erroneous”, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission said : “Undisputedly, lawyers are rendering service. They are charging fees. It is not a contract of personal service. Therefore, there is no reason to hold that they are not covered by the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act,1986. A lawyer may not be responsible for the favourable outcome of a case as that does not depend only on the lawyer’s work. But, if there is deficiency in rendering the promised service, for which consideration in the form of fee is received by him, then the lawyer can be proceeded against under the Consumer Protection Act, the commission held.
So those class of lawyers who take money from the client, but fail to appear before the court or appear without any proper homework on the case or do such a shoddy job of representing the client that the client loses his or her case, should all beware. Failure to exercise with reasonable competence their legal skills would render them liable under the Consumer Protection Act (D.K. Gandhi vs M. Mathias, RP No. 1392 of 2006).