Should you go to consumer court? A new book on consumer rights attempts to de-mystify the filing-a-consumer-complaint process
The January air had a slight nip to it, made sharper by the sea breeze at the Madhuli lawns in Worli behind Poonam Chambers. It was an occasion when Mumbai's glitterati could bring out their pricey shawls and put on designer three-piece suits. The launch of writer Rajyalakshmi Rao, former member & judge, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission) and Nabankur Gupta's book, Consumer Rights and You was a glittering affair, leading a panellist at the launch to say in jest, "This very elite crowd may not need consumer courts. They could just go and buy another Mercedes if the one they have develops faults." Rao said with humourous candour in her opening address, "Some of you have come here because I have bullied you to come" while writer Nabankur Gupta compared the book to a made-to-measure Raymonds suit. While the book is for consumers it also touched on corporate concerns.
The benz club: The glitterati in attendance at the book release. The
audience chuckled at legal observations and off-court asides that proved
consumer matters are not always dull
Here are some excerpts from Consumer Rights and You. Cases are culled from different chapters in the book.
In a chapter called Education Worries, the writers state as introduction:
In India, unfortunately, education is so commercialized that students are compelled to pay hefty donations, large security deposits, high tuition fees and hidden costs for building and development charges. Many institutions are run by fly-by night operators and students are being cheated. Many other institutions give false advertisements, making students believe that the institution has the required reputation and affiliation. The aggrieved students are put to misery later as examinations are not held on time, results are not declared for months or even years, certificates are not issued and their degree/diploma is not recognized.
They then cite on particular case under the headline: Beware of Bogus Institutes and Bogus Advertisements
The institute of biotechnology, Bhubaneswar under the name of 'Bhave Institution of Medical Science and Research' invited applications for different courses, including M.Sc. in biotechnology. After seeing this advertisement, Jitender Kumar and others took admission on 12 August 2004 by paying Rs 17,000 each. Later they found that M.Sc. in biotechnology was not a regular course but a distance education course. They raised objections for being misguided, but the institute did not respond. Thereafter, an FIR was lodged and the police arrested the institution owner along with his henchmen. The police investigated and found out that this was a bogus institution.
These students filed a complaint in the State Commission and they were all refunded Rs 17,000 each, along with 6 per cent interest per annum and a compensation of Rs 10,000 and costs of Rs 5,000 to each of them.
Smrutirekha Mohapatra vs Jitendra Kumar Roy, III (2006) CPJ 431, CD Case No.2 of 2005, decided on 20.06.2003
In a chapter titled, Public Utility Concerns, the writers say that public utilities are basic and essential services for the people, under forms of public control. These utilities are necessary in day-to-day living, to help individuals lead a better life.
They cite as a case:
Vinaya and Vilas Sawant were returning home from Ghatkopar to Jogeshwari via Dadar by train. While walking on the railway foot overbridge to reach Jogeshwari, suddenly one slab of the overbridge collapsed. They were injured along with several other passengers and were taken to Cooper Hospital in an unconscious condition. Vinaya Sawant stated that in the hospital some people robbed her ornaments and belongings. At that time she was working as a telephone operator at MTNL and she had to take medical leave for hospitalization from 28 August 1992 to 28 March 1995 as she became handicapped and disabled due to this accident.
The National Commission held that it is duty of the railways to maintain platforms, footpaths, overbridges for passengers and also arrange for amenities, since the passengers were paying fees for their journey and buying platform tickets. A compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh with interest at 9.9 per cent per annum, from the date of accident till the date of realization, along with costs was awarded.
Vinay Vilas Sawant (Smt) vs Union of India, I (2008) CPJ 13 NC, R.P. No. 864 of 2006, decided on 19.11.2007
In a chapter that might touch a nerve with harassed Mumbaikars the authors give an example of a case under the headline: Housing Hassles. They say, 'Very often consumers have to deal with problems related to their residential properties. In such cases too, they can make complaints to the consumer court and seek redressal for their grievances'.
In case, like one Mr Tarun Kumar Ghai, you too are tackling a one-sided agreement, it might interest you to read this case stated in the book.
Mr Tarun Kumar Ghai entered into an agreement with Malibu Estate Pvt. Ltd for purchase of a flat, but even after ten years it was not ready even though installments were duly paid. In the meantime, City Bank had made a tripartite agreement whereby interest at 17 per cent was being charged to Mr Ghai for borrowing Rs 14.77 lakh for making payments to Malibu Estate. While Mr Ghai was not given the flat initially decided upon, the builder insisted later that he should accept another flat in exchange in a different building. But Ghai complained that he had paid Rs 80, 806 as preferential location charges and hence, this proposal was unacceptable to him. He requested that Malibu estate should refund his amount with interest, but to no avail.
The National Commission held that the builder had made an inequitable and one-sided agreement, whereby if the allottee delays payment of installments, he is liable to pay 20 per cent interest on the amounts but there was no penalty for the builder's delay. Hence, the Commission directed Malibu Estate to refund the entire accrued amount with interest at the rate of 17 per cent along with cost of Rs 30,000 within two months to Mr Ghai.
Tarun Kumar Ghai vs. Malibu Estate private Limited, I (2008) CPJ 309 (NC), (R.P. No. 363 of 2003) decided on 20.12.2007
A consumer took to the court because of a Mercedes problem. Read on from yet another case in the book:
Demonstrated Benz Car Sold As a New Car
Mr Mukund Reddy of Techno Mukund Constructions purchased a Mercedes Benz, E-250 D model from trans Cars India (P) Ltd Chennai, by paying Rs 27. 49 lakh. Shortly after this purchase, he was shocked to find bubbles all over the body of the car and discolouration of the doors and rear portion. The paint had peeled off and the music system was malfunctioning in a premier new car. These defects were attended by the dealer by repairing the music system and repainting. The main issue was that the car was actually a demonstration car, which was sold without bringing it to the knowledge of Mukund Reddy. This is an unfair trade practice. But Mr Reddy had already used the car for over 1.85 lakh without any other manufacturing defects reported. The National Commission directed Mercedes Benz India Ltd reported. The National Commission directed Mercedes Benz India Ltd and Trans Cars India (P) Ltd to pay Rs 2 lakh with 9 per cent interest for ten years.
Techno Mukund Constructions vs Mercedes Benz Ltd and Others, 1(2011) CPJ 119 (NC), O.P. No. 298/2000, decided on 20.01.2011
Consumer Rights and You, published by Pearson.
Price: Rs 325
Rajyalakshmi Rao, author of Consumer Rights and You, says, "People go to consumer court when their loss starts pinching them. For instance, if they have been gypped in a land or house deal, then, they might tap the consumer forum. On the other hand, if they have bought a non-functioning mixie, they might think to themselves it would be far simpler to buy another one, than pursue the matter in a consumer court." Having said that, Rao says that there are people who pursue a matter simply because they are socially conscious about their rights. Says Rao, "For them, it is not a question of whether they can afford something or not, it is about I must not let these people (the company who has sold them a product) make a fool of me. They also think to themselves, it has happened to me, but why should it happen to others? In this way, filing a consumer complaint can serve as a deterrent and set a precedent." Rao says that these socially conscious people can become trailblazers because this is social work what they do. "A lot of people ask me what they should do for society? They want to do some kind of social service. This becomes one kind of social service, in a way because you are doing something for society."
Rao though has a caveat to that argument. "Not everybody should go to consumer courts. First of all, we have very few courts compared to the number of people in this country. What people should do at first, if they have a grievance is to write a letter to the company/facility that they have a grievance. Write a registered letter and get it stamped. This is proof that you know your consumer rights and have given the service provider time enough to respond and correct the wrong. Many companies might take action on receiving the letter, as they too do not want to be dragged to court. Only complicated cases should go to the consumer courts."
Asked whether consumer courts must go, "fast-track" Rao says, "I think some kind of initiative had been started that both parties meet on Saturdays in court and a conciliation process was undertaken, so that cases can get resolved. Yet, some cases do drag on. There are a lot of pending cases in courts." Rao adds that, "At many times, it is the lawyers who are responsible as they come unprepared or say they want time. It is better if consumers argue cases themselves, instead of opting for lawyers."
Two sides of the story
Compensation is so little; like adding insult to injury
Andheri resident Harish Kanchan filed a case in the District Consumer Forum in Bandra, Mumbai in 2008. The case was against a car dealer called Nummer Eins in Chembur and the car company, Skoda. Kanchan said his Skoda car was substituted with fake parts while the genuine parts had been removed when it was sent to the Nummer Eins dealer. Says Kanchan, "Skoda terminated Nummer Eins as dealers because of press reports about my case. Yet, I am still fighting my case against the corporation in the consumer court. It is three years now and there is no end in sight. My car, worth Rs 12 lakh is at the other dealer called JMD Auto in Bhandup. I have not got it back. I think going to the court has been futile. Compensation awarded in cases is so little, it is like adding insult to injury and in many cases, does not even cover the costs incurred by the complainant."
Kanchan adds that till companies are hit with huge penalties and compensation amounts are much, much higher, the consumer will continue to suffer. Says Kanchan, "I have not missed a single hearing but corporates are experts at dilly-dallying and delaying tactics. When I go to court, I look at the board and see that cases have been pending since 1990. Only when penalties become very prohibitive would service providers be extra careful to toe the line."