[Disclaimer: This note is for general information only. It is NOT to be substituted for legal advice or taken as legal advice. The publishers of the blog shall not be liable for any act or omission based on this note]
“The interest of the consumer has to be kept in the forefront and the prime consideration that an essential commodity ought to be made available to the common man at a fair price must rank in priority over every other consideration.”
Y.V. Chandrachud, J. in Prag Ice & Oil Mills v. Union of India, (1978) 3 SCC 459
“An Act to provide for protection of the interests of consumers and for the said purpose, to establish authorities for timely and effective administration and settlement of consumers’ disputes and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”
The long title of the new Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (“2019 Act”) in the least number of words explains the whole and sole purpose of the Act. While the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 had nearly the same long title, but being around three decades old, did not inculcate the needful things that would have solved the problems of the modern and technology-dependent consumers, which is why a need was felt to replace the whole Act with a new one and bring a fundamental change.
The Parliament passed the Consumer Protection Bill, 2019 on 06-08-2019 to replace the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. The President of India gave its accent to the 2019 Act on 09-08-2019 and the same came into force on 20-07-2020. The 2019 Act has been enacted for the purpose of providing timely and effective administration and settlement of consumer disputes and related matters.
Brief History of Consumer Protection Act in India
Consumer Protection has always been a matter of great concern. In ancient India, effective measures were initiated to protect consumers from crimes in the market place. Ancient law-givers ably described various kinds of unfair trade practices and also prescribed severe punishments for wrongdoers. Mainly, acts of adulteration and false weights and measures were seriously dealt with.
In the medieval period, some Muslim rulers developed well-organized market mechanisms to monitor prices and the supply of goods to the markets. During the British period, the modern legal system was introduced in India and many laws were enacted to protect the interests of consumers generally.
Some of the laws which were passed during the British regime concerning consumer interests were: the Contract Act of 1872, the Sale of Goods Act of 1930, the Penal Code of 1860, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940, the Usurious Loans Act of 1918, and the Agriculture Procedure (Grading and Marketing Act) of 1937. These laws provided specific legal protection for consumers.
Today, the civil justice system is tainted with deficiencies that discourage the consumer from seeking legal recourse. However, the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, which provided easy access to justice, had brought a legal revolution in India as a result of its cost-effective mechanisms and popular support. However, with the gradual advancements in technology, the age-old 1986 Act was unable to keep up with the grievances of the modern consumer. Thus, a need was felt to substitute the old Act which resulted in the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.
Key features of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019
- The new Act which was drafted keeping in mind the needs of the modern consumers incorporates new terminologies which had no place in the old Act. Under Section 2(1) “advertisement” is defined as any audio or visual publicity, representation, endorsement or pronouncement made by means of light, sound, smoke, gas, print, electronic media, internet or website and includes any notice, circular, label, wrapper, invoice or such other documents; which means that now a consumer who is aggrieved due to some kind of misleading advertisement can approach the authorities concerned seeking relief.
- A provision for a minor being a consumer has been introduced under Section 2(5)(vii) of the Act where the parent or legal guardian can approach the authorities through the minor seeking relief.
- A new clause of “product liability action” [Section 2(35)] has been added with definition of “complaint” under Section 2(6)(vii) which lies against the product manufacturer [Section 2(36)], product seller [Section 2(37)] or product service provider [Section 2(38)] as the case may be.
- Under the new Act, “consumer” is defined under Section 2(7) as a person who “buys any goods for a consideration which has been paid or promised or partly paid and partly promised, or under any system of deferred payment and includes any user of such goods other than the person who buys such goods for consideration paid or promised or partly paid or partly promised, or under any system of deferred payment, when such use is made with the approval of such person, but does not include a person who obtains such goods for resale or for any commercial purpose” or “hires or avails of any service for a consideration which has been paid or promised or partly paid and partly promised, or under any system of deferred payment and includes any beneficiary of such service other than the person who hires or avails of the services for consideration paid or promised, or partly paid and partly promised, or under any system of deferred payment, when such services are availed of with the approval of the first mentioned person, but does not include a person who avails of such service for any commercial purpose.”
Thus, a consumer will now mean any person who “buys any goods” and “hires any services” which shall include both online and offline transactions through electronic means, teleshopping, direct selling or multi-level marketing.
- The most important feature of the new Act definitely being the rights of the consumer under Section 2(9), which includes,
- the right to be protected against the marketing of goods, products or services which are hazardous to life and property;
- the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods, products or services, as the case may be, so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices;
- the right to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of goods, products or services at competitive prices;
- the right to be heard and to be assured that consumer’s interests will receive due consideration at appropriate fora;
- the right to seek redressal against unfair trade practice or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers; and
- the right to consumer awareness.
- Section 2(10) and 2(11) of the Act talk about “defect” and “deficiency” “Defect” means any fault, imperfection or shortcoming in the quality, quantity, potency, purity or standard which is required to be maintained by or under any law for the time being in force or under any contract, express or implied or as is claimed by the trader in any manner whatsoever in relation to any goods or product and the expression “defective” shall be construed accordingly; whereas “deficiency” means any fault, imperfection, shortcoming or inadequacy in the quality, nature and manner of performance which is required to be maintained by or under any law for the time being in force or has been undertaken to be performed by a person in pursuance of a contract or otherwise in relation to any service and includes—(i) any act of negligence or omission or commission by such person which causes loss or injury to the consumer; and
(ii) deliberate withholding of relevant information by such person to the consumer.
- The new additions include “e-commerce” Section 2(16), “electronic service provider” Section 2(17) along with the prescribed liabilities in relation to internet frauds. This has broadened the scope of the Act and it looks after the better protection of the rights of e-consumers and also enables them to proceed against e-commerce websites in the event of any infringement or violation.
- Thereafter, a series of new terminologies have been added to Section 2 of the Act, for example a brand new concept of “product liability” has been included in the new Act which has been defined under Section 2(34) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 as “the responsibility of a product manufacturer or product seller, of any product or service, to compensate for any harm caused to a consumer by such defective product manufactured or sold or by deficiency in services relating thereto;” and in lieu of which the concepts of “product liability action”, “product manufacturer” etc. have also been included in the Act.
Central Consumer Protection Authorities
One of the major drawbacks of the previous Act was that there were no protection authorities in order to keep check, regulate and address the grievances of the consumers in an effective and speedy manner. Chapter III of the 2019 Act provides with the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) which has been added in order to regulate matters relating to violation of rights of consumers, unfair trade practices and false or misleading advertisements which are prejudicial to the interests of public and consumers and to promote, protect and enforce the rights of consumers as a class. Central Authority shall consist of a Chief Commissioner and such number of other Commissioners as may be prescribed, to be appointed by the Central Government to exercise the powers and discharge the functions under this Act. It will consist of an investigation wing headed by a Director-General for the purpose of conducting inquiry or investigation under this Act as may be directed by the Central Authority.
An appeal to an order passed by the CCPA on this issue can be filed before the National Commission within a period of 30 days from the date of the receipt of such order.
How to make a complaint?
Section 17 states that a complaint relating to violation of consumer rights or unfair trade practices or false or misleading advertisements which are prejudicial to the interests of consumers as a class, may be forwarded either in writing or in electronic mode, to any one of the authorities, namely, the District Collector or the Commissioner of Regional Office or the Central Authority.
The Central Authority under Section 21 has been provided with the powers to issue directions and penalties against false or misleading advertisements.
Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission (CDRC)
Chapter IV of the Act deals with the Establishment, Qualifications, Jurisdiction, Manner of Complaint, Proceedings etc. regarding the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. CDRC is empowered to resolve complaints with respect to unfair and restrictive trade practices, defective goods and services, overcharging and goods which are a hazard to life and safety. It has to be set up at three levels, i.e. the District, State and National levels (commissions). In comparison to the old Act, the jurisdictions of the commissions have been enhanced.
District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (previously known as the District Forum):
District Commission shall consist of a President and not less than two and not more than such number of members as may be prescribed, in consultation with the Central Government. The District Commission now has the jurisdiction to entertain complaints where the value of the goods and services paid as consideration does not exceed one crore rupees. Section 34(2)(d) categorically states that the complaint can now also be instituted in a District Commission within the local limits of whose jurisdiction the complainant resides or personally works for gain, apart from filing in the jurisdiction where the other side actually or voluntarily resides, or carries a business, or has a branch office or personally works for gain.
State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (previously known as the State Commission):
The State Commission shall have jurisdiction to entertain the complaints where the consideration exceeds one crore rupees but does not exceed ten crore rupees.
National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (previously known as the National Commission):
The National Commission shall have the jurisdiction to entertain complaints where the consideration paid exceeds ten crore rupees.
The jurisdiction in which the complaint is to be filed is now on the basis of the value of the goods and services paid, which was not the case in the 1986 Act where it was on the value of the goods and services and the compensation, if any, claimed. A great emphasis has been placed on mediation which will be dealt with further.
The Act has introduced a new chapter (Chapter V) on mediation as an alternate dispute resolution mechanism in order to resolve the consumer dispute in a much faster way without having to approach the Commissions. Thus, in the events where the mediation is successful in whole, the terms of such agreement shall be reduced into writing accordingly. Where the dispute is settled only in part, the Commission shall record the statement of the issues which have been settled, and shall continue to hear the remaining issues involved in the dispute. In case of unsuccessful mediation the respective Commission shall within seven days of the receipt of the settlement report, pass a suitable order and dispose of the matter accordingly.
Offences and Penalties
Section 21(2) and Section 89 of the 2019 Act provides the Central Authority with the power to impose a penalty in respect of any false or misleading advertisement, by a manufacturer or an endorser, it may, by order, impose on manufacturer or endorser a penalty which may extend to ten lakh rupees. Apart from this, a separate chapter (Chapter VII) for offences and penalties has been introduced where detailed penalties and punishments have been mentioned in relation to non-compliance, or manufacturing for sale or storing, selling or distributing or importing products that are adulterated or spurious.
Related Rules and Regulations
- The Consumer Protection (E-Commerce) Rules, 2020 which are mandatory and are not advisories, lay down all the important information relating to the e-commerce entities keeping in mind both the consumer and the product/service provider. Key highlights are:
- E-commerce entities according to Rule 5 are required to provide information to consumers, relating to return, refund, exchange, warranty and guarantee, delivery and shipment, modes of payment, grievance redressal mechanism, payment methods, security of payment methods, charge-back options and country of origin.
- These platforms will have to acknowledge the receipt of any consumer complaint within 48 hoursand redress the complaint within one month from the date of receipt. They will also have to appoint a grievance officer for consumer grievance redressal.
- Sellers cannot refuse to take back goods or withdraw services or refuse refunds,if such goods or services are defective, deficient, delivered late, or if they do not meet the description on the platform.
- The rules also prohibit the e-commerce companies from manipulating the priceof the goods or services to gain unreasonable profit through unjustified prices.
- As per the Consumer Protection (Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions) Rules, 2020 which came into force on 20th July 2020, the amount of fee payable for filing the complaint in the District Commission up to Rs 5 lakhs has been made Nil according to Rule 7.
- The credit of the amount due to unidentifiable consumers will go to the Consumer Welfare Fund(CWF).
- State Commissions will furnish information to the Central Government on a quarterly basis on vacancies, disposal, the pendency of cases and other matters.
- Apart from these general rules, there are Central Consumer Protection Council Rules, provided for the constitution of the Central Consumer Protection Council(CCPC).
- It will be an advisory body on consumer issues, headed by the Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution with the Minister of State as Vice Chairperson and 34 other members from different fields.
- It will have a three-year tenure and will have Minister-in-charge of consumer affairs from two States from each region: North, South, East, West, and North-East Region.
The 2019 Act is a much required change in favor of the consumers considering the current age of digitization. It empowers them with clearly defined rights and dispute resolution process which will enable them to get their grievance addressed with a fast track mechanism.
In order to have a better understanding of the concepts have a glance over some of the landmark judgments given by our Courts according to the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 which is now repealed but the guidelines laid down in those cases helped in framing the new Consumer Protection Act, 2019.
- The Delhi High Court while examining the concept of advertisement decided the case of,
Horlicks Ltd. v. Zydus Wellness Products Ltd., 2020 SCC OnLine Del 873
The High Court passed an interim order restraining Zydus from telecasting its advertisement comparing Complan to Horlicks on the grounds that the same was misleading and disparaging. The Court relied on various judgments on misleading advertisements, disparagement and law governing publication of advertisements on television. Major decisions were:
Dabur (India) Ltd. v. Colortek (Meghalaya) (P) Ltd., 2010 SCC OnLine Del 391
The Delhi High Court culled out the principles governing disparagement in the advertisements and held:
On the basis of the law laid down by the Supreme Court, the guiding principles for us should be the following:
(i) An advertisement is commercial speech and is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
(ii) An advertisement must not be false, misleading, unfair or deceptive.
(iii) Of course, there would be some grey areas but these need not necessarily be taken as serious representations of fact but only as glorifying one’s product.
To this extent, in our opinion, the protection of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is available. However, if an advertisement extends beyond the grey areas and becomes a false, misleading, unfair or deceptive advertisement, it would certainly not have the benefit of any protection.
Pepsi Co. Inc. v. Hindustan Coca Cola Ltd., 2003 SCC OnLine Del 802
In Pepsi Co. it was held that certain factors had to be kept in mind while deciding the question of disparagement. Those factors were:
(i) Intent of the commercial,
(ii) Manner of the commercial, and
(iii) Story line of the commercial and the message sought to be conveyed.
These factors were amplified or restated in the following terms:
“(1) The intent of the advertisement – this can be understood from its story line and the message sought to be conveyed.
(2) The overall effect of the advertisement – does it promote the advertiser’s product or does it disparage or denigrate a rival product?
In this context it must be kept in mind that while promoting its product, the advertiser may, while comparing it with a rival or a competing product, make an unfavorable comparison but that might not necessarily affect the story line and message of the advertised product or have that as its overall effect.
(3) The manner of advertising – is the comparison by and large truthful or does it falsely denigrate or disparage a rival product? While truthful disparagement is permissible, untruthful disparagement is not permissible.”
- In Connaught Plaza Restaurants Ltd. Kapil Mitra, 2020 SCC OnLine NCDRC 192
The complainant/respondent had participated in Mc Donald’s widely published scheme ‘Mc Donald’s Mein Khao Har Bar Prize Le Jao’ by placing two separate orders worth Rs 81. It was alleged by the complainant that Connaught Plaza Restaurants Ltd. (CPRL) a franchisee running Mc Donald restaurants has indulged in unfair trade practices by not giving the assured prizes as per the scheme, rather put the participants under the obligation to make a further purchase of a minimum Rs 20 in order to avail free French Fries. Also, the complainant had to send two SMS giving the coupon numbers, for which Rs 3 per SMS were charged. Moreover, the details of the entire scheme with its terms and conditions and the result of the winners were also concealed from the participating customers. Therefore, the complainant filed a consumer complaint before the District Forum praying to declare the scheme as unfair trade practice and that Connaught Plaza Restaurants Ltd. be directed to disclose the entire scheme and winners of the prizes. The District Forum allowed the complaint and awarded compensation and costs to the complainant of Rs. 10,000 and Rs.2,000.
Aggrieved, CPRL filed an appeal before the State Commission, but the State Commission modified the order of the District Forum by enhancing the compensation and awarding punitive damages to the tune of Rs. 2,00,000 and Rs. 10,00,000.
CPRL then appealed before the NCDRC. The NCDRC held that no proof had been filed by the complainant that CPRL had collected the SMS charges or that it had an agreement with the Telecom Company/Service provider on sharing of SMS charges. Thus, the order of the State Commission could not be sustained on those grounds. On the other hand, it held that it is also true that the scheme was an unfair trade practice followed by Connaught Plaza Restaurants Ltd. This fact having been established by the concurrent findings given by the District and the State Commission. The complainant and other similar customers who may not have come forward to file a complaint need to be granted relief. Partly allowing the appeal, the NCDRC reduced the amount of compensation to Rs. 30,000 and costs to Rs. 70,000 respectively.
- The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) in the recent case of, Ernakulam Medical Centre P.R. Jayasree, 2020 SCC Online NCDRC 490 observed that,
“Releasing a dead body by a hospital to an unrelated third person unquestionably constitutes ‘deficiency in service’ within the meaning of Section 2(1)(g) and (o) of Consumer Protection Act, 1986.”
- Recently, the Supreme Court in a judgment laid emphasis on the role of NCDRC in Union of India N.K. Srivastava, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 636, wherein the Court had dismissed an appeal which had aroused from an order of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. The complaint alleged medical negligence against Sarvodaya Hospital and Safdarjung Hospital. The NCDRC allowed the revision of Sarvodaya Hospital. While exonerating it of the finding of medical negligence, it held Safdarjung Hospital liable to pay the compensation of Rs 2 lakhs imposed by the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
The District Forum had dismissed the consumer complaint stating that there was no deficiency on the part of Sarvodaya Hospital in referring the complainant to a specialized facility. An appeal was filed before the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission by the original complainant. The SCDRC, by its judgment concluded that Sarvodaya Hospital was guilty of medical negligence and directed it to pay a sum of Rs 2 lakhs as compensation and costs quantified at Rs 20,000. However, the complaint was held not to be maintainable against Safdarjung Hospital. A revision was filed against the judgment of the SCDRC by Sarvodaya Hospital before the NCDRC which allowed the revision and came to the conclusion that Sarvodaya Hospital was not guilty of medical negligence, however, the NCDRC elaborated on the question as to whether Safdarjung Hospital had been correctly exonerated. The NCDRC held that though the complainant had not filed a revision against the order of the SCDRC specifically holding that Safdarjung Hospital was not amenable to the jurisdiction of the consumer fora, he was not precluded from challenging a finding which was adverse to him in the revision petition. On these facts, the NCDRC sustained the finding of medical negligence against Safdarjung Hospital and directed it to pay compensation quantified at Rs 2 lakhs.
† Editorial Assistant (Legal)