Supreme Court: In a case where the NCDRC had condoned a delay for a period beyond the prescribed statutory outer limit just before the decision of the Constitution Bench on 4 March 2020 wherein it was held that the consumer fora has no power and/or jurisdiction to accept the written statement beyond the statutory period prescribed under the Act, i.e., 45 days in all, the 3-judge bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud*, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath, JJ has held that the Constitution Bench judgment would not affect applications that were pending or decided before 4 March 2020.
The Court made clear that such applications for condonation would be entitled to the benefit of the position in Reliance General Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Mampee Timbers & Hardwares Pvt. Ltd., (2021) 3 SCC 673, which directed consumer fora to render a decision on merits.
While entertaining a Consumer Complaint, the NCDRC has condoned the delay of 100 days in filing a written statement. The order of the NCDRC was a few days before the judgment of a Constitution Bench dated 4 March 2020, in New India Assurance company Limited v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Private Limited, (2020) 5 SCC 757 which held that the limitation period under Section 13(2)3 of the Consumer Protection Act 1986 could not be extended beyond the statutorily prescribed period of forty-five days.
The appellants filed a consumer complaint before the NCDRC on 3 December 2018 based on two insurance policies on the ground of an alleged fire that took place at the factory of the appellant. The respondent received the summons on 20 May 2019 together with the order of the NCDRC and a complete set of papers consisting of the consumer complaint and documents. The respondent filed its written statement on 23 September 2019 together with IA No 15390 of 2019 for condonation of a delay of 100 days. The NCDRC, by its order dated 25 February 2020, condoned the delay subject to the respondent paying costs of Rs 50,000.
What led to the confusion?
A series of judgments, before and after the Constitution Bench verdict, gave contradictory views with respect to discretion of NCDRC to condone the delay beyond 45 days. Here’s how the various Supreme Court verdicts created uncertainty:
Reference to the Constitution Bench
The decision in J.J. Merchant v. Shrinath Chaturvedi, (2002) 6 SCC 635, which was a three Judge Bench decision, consumer fora has no power to extend the time for filing a reply/written statement beyond the period prescribed under the Act. However, thereafter, despite the above three Judge Bench decision, a contrary view was taken by a two Judge Bench and therefore the matter was referred to the five Judge Bench.
During the pendency of the matter before the Constitution Bench
Bhasin Infotech and Infrastructure Private Limited v. Grand Venezia Buyers Association, (2018) 17 SCC 255
Parties were permitted to file written statements beyond the prescribed limitation period, subject to payment of appropriate costs.
Reliance General Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Mampee Timbers & Hardwares Pvt. Ltd., (2021) 3 SCC 673
The consumer fora may accept the written statement beyond the stipulated time of 45 days in an appropriate case, on suitable terms, including the payment of costs and to proceed with the matter.
Constitution Bench Verdict
New India Assurance company Limited v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Private Limited, (2020) 5 SCC 757 [Constitution Bench]
The Constitution Bench reiterated the view taken in the case of J.J.Merchant and held that the consumer fora has no power and/or jurisdiction to accept the written statement beyond the statutory period prescribed under the Act, i.e., 45 days in all.
“28. It is true that “justice hurried is justice buried”. But in the same breath it is also said that “justice delayed is justice denied”. The legislature has chosen the latter, and for a good reason. It goes with the objective sought to be achieved by the Consumer Protection Act, which is to provide speedy justice to the consumer. It is not that sufficient time to file a response to the complaint has been denied to the opposite party. It is just that discretion of extension of time beyond 15 days (after the 30 days’ period) has been curtailed and consequences for the same have been provided under Section 13(2)(b)(ii) of the Consumer Protection Act. It may be that in some cases the opposite party could face hardship because of such provision, yet for achieving the object of the Act, which is speedy and simple redressal of consumer disputes, hardship which may be caused to a party has to be ignored.”
Read more: District Forum can’t extend limitation period of 45 days for filing response under Section 13 of Consumer Protection Act
Matter decided right after the Constitution Bench verdict
Daddy’s Builders Private Limited v. Manisha Bhargava, (2021) 3 SCC 669
The decision was rendered on 11 February 2021 after the judgment of the Constitution Bench in New India Assurance Company Limited (supra). That was a case where the NCDRC in a judgment dated 4 September 2020, had confirmed the order of the Karnataka State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission dated 26 September 2018 rejecting an application seeking condonation of delay in filing the written statement. Ultimately it was left to the concerned fora to accept written statements beyond the stipulated period of 45 days in an appropriate case. [Read more]
Having regard to the prospective effect of the judgment of the Constitution Bench in New India Assurance Company Limited and the orders in Reliance General Insurance Company Limited and Bhasin Infotech, which had recognized an element of discretion pending the reference, the Court held that no case for interference is made in the order of the NCDRC allowing the application for condonation of delay on merits.
[Diamond Exports v. United India Insurance Company Limited, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1241, decided on 14.12.2021]
For appellant: Advocate Salil Paul
*Judgment by: Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud