Drawing lessons from several judgements that delivered justice to consumers, M Rajyalakshmi Rao, former member of NCDRC explained how consumers should successfully fight their cases
Consumer is King, they say. But that is only until you buy a product or service. Once the deal is done, the manufacturers and service providers treat their consumers as beggars whose grievances related to the product or service are completely ignored. According to M Rajyalakshmi Rao, former Member and Judge at the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), only “an enlightened consumer is king”. She urged consumers to make an effort to stand up for their rights and keep all records of their purchases, which would help in case there is any grievance or issue in future.
Speaking at an interactive seminar organised by Moneylife Foundation, Ms Rao cited several cases and judgements where consumers were provided justice. She pointed that consumer courts happen to receive a massive number of complaints regarding medical negligence and insurance claim rejections, especially in mediclaim policies.
Cases of Medical Negligence
According to Ms Rao, the NCDRC was forced to take action against irresponsible or negligent doctors because the Medical Council of India (MCI) had shut its eyes to the wrongdoing of its member-doctors.
She provided some examples where patients were seriously harmed because doctors failed to take simple steps to ensure the wellbeing of their patients, especially cases where post-operative care was deficient. For instance, a diabetic patient, who complained of a headache after his eye surgery had to have the eye removed because the doctor did not even monitor his blood sugar level after the operation. The Consumer Court verdict was that just because the surgery was performed properly, does not make the doctor unaccountable for this incident. Doctors are obliged to provide high standards of post-operative care, Ms Rao said.
Denial of Insurance Claims
In one 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 only proof for the argument was that the boy on hospital duty had made a tiny little note that the wife of the man in question (policyholder) stated that he had been complaining of such issues for quite some time.
The Consumer Court rejected the insurance company's argument, stating that there was no way that a man, if he were aware that he suffers from such a critical ailment, would not get medical help anytime before this incident. The 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.
If your insurance company is fooling you, or is rejecting claims on flimsy grounds, the doors of consumer courts are open to you.
Cases related to housing and property
There were thousands of cases against Urban Development Authorities for being hand in glove with builder to fool buyers. For example, Ms Rao said, in many cases, builders would take 80% of the payment in instalments. Then one fine day they would demand final instalment in one go through a letter, which was never delivered to the buyer or delivered after the time limit. Citing non-response from the customer, the builder would then cancel the contract and forfeit the money paid by the buyer. The buyer had no knowledge of these things unless he was vigilant. In fact, there was a Supreme Court judgement, which said that many officials in Urban Development Authorities were helping these builders instead of protecting the consumers.
In a smart move, the Consumer Court cited the Supreme Court judgement, demanded an enquiry, and said that all officials found guilty would be made to compensate for the losses suffered by the consumers by paying from their salaries. According to Ms Rao, this was enough to scare the Urban Development Authorities, and that such cases have significantly reduced since their judgement.
What can you do?
Ms Rao noted the importance of proactive consumers who take the 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.
“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.
Things to remember:
|• Here are some of the things you can do ensure you have a watertight case in case of an eventuality where you have to approach the consumer court.|
- • After every hospital visit (especially during discharge after a surgery or serious disease), insist that the hospitals give you your detailed medical records. They cannot refuse to give the records on grounds of confidentiality. The Medical Council of India has now ordered hospitals to provide patients with their medical records within 72 hours of request.
- • If you purchase something from a seller in bulk, always save one or two from the lot as samples. This may turn out to be useful evidence later on in case the items turn out to be defective.
- • During the purchase of gold, always look for the BIS Hallmark that certifies the quality of gold before you make your payment.
- • Do not take everything stated in commercial advertisements on face value. A lot of information is either false or twisted or omitted.
- • Along with a print out, also ensure that you save the 'Confirmation Page' as a PDF file after an online purchase (Say airline tickets, electronics etc.)
- • Store all important bills, correspondence, receipts, documents and warranty/guarantee cards safely. You may think these are useless, but you never know when you will need them!
How to file a case:
The Consumer Protection Act is a “benevolent legislation that encompasses all individuals who have paid for a good or service, and there has been a defect or deficiency in the delivery of the same. The objective of consumer courts has been described as 'justice at your doorstep'.” Only in case of insurance related issues, the Act allows corporate entities and organisations to file before the consumer court for deficiency of service. In cases where the litigant is unable to afford a fee or argue her case, the court even provides financial aid by asking lawyers to argue on their behalf.
It is well known that not all consumers are satisfied with the efficiency with which justice is delivered at consumer courts. Many members of the audience at the seminar had also faced issues. For example, many cases have been pending in these courts for several years. In some cases, judges in particular district fora are transferred and no one is deployed to fill that position for a long time.
Ms Rao explained the reason behind some of these issues, and what is being done to tackle them. She said the National Commission has been working with great efficiency, and nearly 92% of the cases with them have been decided. “However, things are much slower at State and District level. This is because, the upkeep and infrastructure of these Courts is the responsibility of the respective State Governments, and these governments usually tend to be extremely laidback in their attitude towards consumer courts. They are hardly bothered about the humongous backlog that is piling up, and consumer courts are generally treated as ‘step-children’ in the States,” she added.
Some 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 Consumer Activist Jehangir Gai, who has been involved with consumer organisations since 1984.
Ms Rao stated clearly 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 National Commission, she added.
Those seeking help or advice on consumer issues can contact Moneylife Foundation’s Legal Resource Centre (LRC) ( http://moneylife.in/lrc.html )