Supreme Court: The 5-judge bench of Arun Mishra, Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran, MR Shah and S. Ravindra Bhat, JJ has held that the District Forum has no power to extend the time for filing the response to the complaint beyond the period of 15 days in addition to 30 days as is envisaged under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
The bench was answering the reference relating to the grant of time for filing response to a complaint under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 wherein the answers to the following questions were sought:
- whether Section 13(2) (a) of the Consumer Protection Act, which provides for the respondent/opposite party filing its response to the complaint within 30 days or such extended period, not exceeding 15 days, should be read as mandatory or directory; i.e., whether the District Forum has power to extend the time for filing the response beyond the period of 15 days, in addition to 30 days.
- what would be the commencing point of limitation of 30 days stipulated under the aforesaid Section.
Answering the first question, the Court held that the decision rendered by a 3-judge bench in Dr. J. J. Merchant v. Shrinath Chaturvedi, (2002) 6 SCC 635, to be correct in law, wherein it was held that the time limit prescribed for filing the response to the complaint under the Consumer Protection Act, as provided under Section 13(2)(a), is to be strictly adhered to, i.e. the same is mandatory, and not directory.
Considering the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2002 i.e. quick disposal of cases, the Court in the said verdict noticed that subSection (3A) of Section 13 was inserted, providing that the complaint should be heard as expeditiously as possible and that endeavour should be made to normally decide the complaint within 3 months, and within 5 months where analysis or testing of commodities was required. It was further noticed,
“The Provisos to the said sub-Section required that no adjournment should be ordinarily granted and if granted, it should be for sufficient cause to be recorded in writing and on imposition of cost, and if the complaint could not be decided within the specified period, reasons for the same were to be recorded at the time of disposing of the complaint.”
Answering the second question, the bench explained that a conjoint reading of Clauses (a) and (b) of sub-Section (2) of Section 13 would make the position absolutely clear that the commencing point of limitation of 30 days, under the aforesaid provisions, would be from the date of receipt of notice accompanied by a copy of the complaint, and not merely receipt of the notice, as the response has to be given, within the stipulated time, to the averments made in the complaint and unless a copy of the complaint is served on the opposite party, he would not be in a position to furnish its reply. Thus, mere service of notice, without service of the copy of the complaint, would not suffice and cannot be the commencing point of 30 days under the aforesaid Section of the Act.
The Court, further, clarified that,
“the objection of not having received a copy of the complaint along with the notice should be raised on the first date itself and not thereafter, otherwise if permitted to be raised at any point later would defeat the very purpose of the Act, which is to provide simple and speedy redressal of consumer disputes.”
It, hence, held that commencing point of limitation of 30 days under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act would be from the date of receipt of the notice accompanied with the complaint by the opposite party, and not mere receipt of the notice of the complaint.
[New India Assurance v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Pvt. Ltd., 2020 SCC OnLine SC 287, decided on 04.03.2020]