The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) has upheld that consumers having a common interest or grievance and seeking same relief can file class action suit against the other party. This judgement also paves way for lakhs of investors to seek relief from companies that are not repaying money invested in corporate fixed deposits (FDs).
"In one of the written submissions, it is contended that since a complaint in a representative capacity can be filed only on behalf of all the consumer having the same interest, such a complaint will not be maintainable where one or more individual complaints, expressing such a grievance are already pending. We however, are unable to accept the contention. No such restriction finds place in Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act or in Order I Rule 8 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Accepting such a contention would defeat the very purpose of allowing such a suit or complaint since every consumer would be compelled to file an individual complaint leading to multiplicity of proceedings. Such an interpretation would not serve the cause either of the consumer or of the service provider," ruled a three member Bench at the NCDRC.
In the order, the Bench of Justice DK Jain, Justice VK Jain and Dr BC Gupta, stated, "Section 12(1) (c) of the Consumer Protection Act when read with Order I Rule 8 of the Code of the Civil Procedure will apply if (i) the consumers are numerous (ii) They have the same interest (iii) the necessary permission of the Consumer Forum is obtained and (iv) notice in terms of Sub-rule (2) of Rule 8 of Order I is given. It however, is not necessary that the cause of action available to all the consumers should also be the same. What is required is sameness of the interest and not the same cause of action."
The national consumer forum was hearing a case
filed by Bahadurgarh, Jhajjar-based Ambrish Kumar Shukla and 21 others against Ferrous Infrastructure Pvt Ltd. The NCDRC Bench also referred two orders passed by the Forum relating to the interpretation of Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act.
Section 12(1) of the Consumer Protection Act reads as under:
(1) A complaint in relation to any goods sold or delivered or agreed to be sold or delivered or any service provided or agreed to be provided may be filed with a District Forum by-
(a) the consumer to whom such goods are sold or delivered or agreed to be sold or delivered or such service provided or agreed to be provided;
(b) any recognized consumer association whether the consumer to whom the goods sold or delivered or agreed to be sold or delivered or service provided or agreed to be provided is a member of such association or not;
(c) one or more consumers, where there are numerous consumers having the same interest, with the permission of the District Forum, on behalf of, or for the benefit of, all consumers so interested; or
(d) the Central or the State Government, as the case may be, either in its individual capacity or as a representative of interests of the consumers in general.
Section 13(6) of the Consumer Protection Act reads as under:
(6) Where the complainant is a consumer referred to in sub-clause (iv) of clause (b) of sub-section (1) of section 2, the provisions of rule 8 of Order I of the First Schedule to the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (5 of 1908) shall apply subject to the modification that every reference therein to a suit or decree shall be construed as a reference to a complaint or the order of the District Forum thereon.
Section 2(1)(b) of the Consumer Protection Act reads as under:
(b) “complainant” means—
(i) a consumer; or
(ii) any voluntary consumer association registered under the Companies Act, 1956 (1 of 1956) or under any other law for the time being in force; or
(iii) the Central Government or any State Government; or
(iv) one or more consumers, where there are numerous consumers having the same interest;
(v) in case of death of a consumer, his legal heir or representative;] who or which makes a complaint;
Order I of Rule 8 of the Code of Civil Procedure which finds reference in Section 13(6) of the Consumer Protection Act, reads as under:
8. One person may sue or defend on behalf of all in same interest.-
(1) Where there are numerous persons having the same interest in one suit,—
(a) one or more of such persons may, with the permission of the court, sue or be sued, or may defend such suit, on behalf of, or for the benefit of, all persons so interested;
(b) the court may direct that one or more of such persons may sue or be sued, or may defend such suit, on behalf of, or for the benefit of, all persons so interested.
(2) The court shall, in every case where a permission or direction is given under sub-rule (1), at the plaintiff’s expense, give notice of the institution of the suit to all persons so interested, either by personal service, or, where, by reason of the number of persons or any other cause, such service is not reasonably practicable, by public advertisement, as the court in each case may direct.
(3) Any person on whose behalf, or for whose benefit, a suit is instituted, or defended, under sub-rule (1), may apply to the court to be made a party to such suit.
(4) No part of the claim in any such suit shall be abandoned under sub-rule (1), and no such suit shall be withdrawn under sub-rule (3) of rule 1 of Order XXIII, and no agreement, compromise or satisfaction shall be recorded in any such suit under rule 3 of that Order, unless the court has given, at the plaintiff’s expenses notice to all persons so interested in the manner specified in sub-rule (2).
(5) Where any person suing or defending in any such suit does not proceed with due diligence in the suit or defence, the court may substitute in his place any other person having the same interest in the suit.
(6) A decree passed in a suit under this rule shall be binding on all persons on whose behalf, or for whose benefit, the suit is instituted, or defended, as the case may be.
While maintaining that the decision in one complaint filed in a representative capacity will bind all the consumers on whose behalf or for whose benefit the complaint is filed, as provided in Order I Rule 8 (6) of the Code of Civil Procedure, the NCDRC Bench clarified that second complaint with same grievance and relief will be dismissed.
It says, "...once a complaint, in a representative capacity is filed under Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act, and the requisite permission for filing such a complaint is given by the Consumer Forum, a second complaint, in a representative capacity under Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act would not be maintainable by or on behalf of consumers having the same interest and seeking the same relief and if filed, is liable to be dismissed with liberty to seek impleadment in the complaint already instituted in a representative capacity with the requisite permission of the Consumer Forum."
"Since a complaint in a representative capacity can be filed only on behalf of all the consumers having the same interest i.e. a common grievance and seeking the same relief against the same person, an individual complaint expressing such a grievance will not be maintainable and the only recourse available to a consumer having the same grievance is to seek impleadment in the complaint filed in the representative capacity," the Bench added.
At the same time, individual complaints filed before the grant of requisite permission under Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act cannot be compelled to withdraw and the consumer can go ahead with his/her complaint. "Since it cannot be said that the complaint in the representative capacity was filed on their behalf or for their benefit as well, the order passed in such a complaint will not be binding on them. If however, such persons want to withdraw their pending complaints and join the complaint instituted in the representative capacity, there is no bar on their adopting such a course of action. The decision, of course, would rest with them whether to continue with the individual complaint already instituted by them or to withdraw the said complaint and become party to the complaint filed in a representative capacity," the NCDRC Bench said.
While emphasising upon the binding effect of a decision rendered in a complaint under Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act, on all the consumers, on whose behalf or for whose benefit such a complaint is filed, even if they chose not to join as a party to the complaint, the Bench said it is necessary to exercise due care and caution while considering such a complaint even at the initial stage and to grant the requisite permission, only where the complaint fulfils all the requisite conditions in terms of Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act read with Order I Rule 8 of the Code of Civil Procedure; as interpreted in this reference.
"It would also be necessary for the Bench to either give individual notices or an adequate public notice of the institution of the complaint to all the persons on whose behalf or for whose benefit the complaint is instituted. Such a notice should disclose inter-alia (i) the subject matter of the complaint including the particulars of the project if the complaint relates to a housing project / scheme, (ii) the class of persons on whose behalf or for whose benefit the complaint is filed, (iii) the common grievance sought to get redressed through the class action, (iv) the alleged deficiency in the services and (v) the reliefs claimed in the complaint. It will also be necessary to hear the opposite party, before taking a final view on the grant or otherwise of the permission required in terms of Section 12(1)(c) of the Consumer Protection Act," the National Consumer Forum concluded.