Redressal forums in banking, insurance and investments seem to be tilted against the helpless financial consumers. Consumer courts may be a better option
Consumer forums are the best place for financial consumers to resolve their issues, such as deficiency in services, fraud or unfair practices, and not those set up by independent regulators.
“Doors of consumer forums are open to all genuine consumers. An enlightened consumer is the king. When you know your rights and when you have all the evidence, you can call the shots,” according to Rajyalakshmi Rao, former member judge of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). She was speaking at a seminar on Consumer Rights Cases organised by Moneylife Foundation on 28 March 2015.
Ms Rao has worked at all the three levels of consumer grievances redressal mechanism—the district forum, the state commission and the NCDRC. She has spent over 17 years on the Bench.
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986, lays down the rights of the consumers with the objective to promote and protect the rights of the consumers. The Act covers both ‘goods’ and ‘services’.
However, many consumers are still unaware of their rights and of the fact that they have a platform where they can file a complaint and demand what is rightfully theirs. Ms Rao cited several cases and judgements where justice was delivered to consumers. These included cases of medical negligence, denial of insurance claims, and cases related to housing and property.
Standards for Doctors
Referring to one case, she mentioned about a doctor who performed an eye surgery perfectly well, but the post-operative care provided was sub-standard. Knowing that his patient was diabetic, the doctor failed to monitor his blood sugar, despite the patient complaining of a headache. In the end, the patient had to have an eye removed. The Consumer Court concluded that just because the surgery was performed properly did not make the doctor unaccountable. Doctors are obliged to provide post-operative care, Ms Rao said.
In another case, an insurance company denied compensation to a man who underwent a triple-bypass surgery on the grounds that his was a pre-existing condition. Their argument was based on flimsy evidence. NCDRC noted that there was nothing to prove that either the patient, or his doctors, had any knowledge of his condition beforehand. Ms Rao said that it was obvious that the insurance company had ‘no bonafide intent to pay’ in the first place.
Many consumers do not realise that the doors to consumer courts are open to them in case they have been wronged in the delivery or performance of goods or services. For instance, harassment by recovery agents or banks for repayment of loans, medical negligence by a doctor or even unavailability of water in long distance public transport can be taken up with the consumer courts. (One family did approach a district forum after they found the toilets in Rajdhani Express to be dirty and without water supply. The court ruled in their favour and the Railways had to compensate the family.)
Ms Rao noted the importance of proactive consumers who make efforts to raise an issue when someone fails to deliver on their promises in the delivery of goods or services. This serves a much larger purpose than just individual gain, as it can often ensure justice for the public at large.
Laidback Attitude Unhelpful
“We are not looking for disputing consumers,” she clarified. However, a laidback attitude will not help anyone. She urged everyone to write a registered letter to the wrongdoer, requesting them to rectify their shortcomings in a fortnight. Mention in the letter that if they fail to do so, you will have no option but to approach the consumer court.
Ms Rao’s speech was followed by a lively discussion and interaction with Ms Rao, moderated by consumer activist Jehangir Gai, who has been involved with consumer issues for three decades. Mr Gai highlighted some of the key issues related to consumer rights’ awareness and the struggles that a consumer has to face in the process of fighting for his rights, as some of these litigations take years to come to a conclusion.
On the issue of endless delays in the settlement of consumer cases, Ms Rao noted that the NCRDC works with great efficiency, while state commissions and district fora are slow because of the laidback attitude of state governments that are responsible for the upkeep and infrastructure of these courts. Although the government has been trying to spread consumer awareness with its Jago Grahak Jago! (Wake Up, Consumer!) campaign, the consumer still has several obstacles to face when he decides to take things up with the consumer courts.
A particularly disturbing case brought up by a member of the audience was one where a woman found an insect inside a sealed bottle of ‘Minute Maid’ she purchased. She had followed all procedures, reported the matter to the consumer court and submitted the sealed bottle for examination. It has been four years since she has been fighting this litigation and it is still with the district forum.
The laboratory where the bottle was sent for inspection by the court stated that they were not equipped to perform a detailed chemical analysis. So the court resorted to visual inspection, which was challenged by the opposing party. When the court decided to opt for a proper examination, it was found that the bottle was destroyed by the laboratory it was first sent to. Moreover, the judges who were presiding in the case initially have been transferred, and the new judges have not actually seen the bottle with the dead insect inside it. Where does it leave the consumer? The consumer court itself is responsible for the blunder.
Another matter that came to light during audience interaction was that many judges also try to enforce procedures followed in civil courts in consumer courts, something that goes against the very principle of consumer courts—which are supposed to be consumer-friendly in every way possible, said Mr Gai.
Ms Rao insisted that such behaviour is not permitted. There is no specified format for filing a complaint in the consumer court and no judge is allowed to insist on one. If they do, this issue can be raised at the NCDRC, she added.