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Historical Trends of Consumer Protection Laws in India

Consumer protection laws in India have gone through a roller-coaster ride of development since the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.  Prior to that, the Sale of Goods Act, 1930 (SGA) used to be the exclusive statute of consumer protection in India for approximately fifty-five years. The SGA, drafted with precision, is “an admirable piece of legislation.”[1] It has also been sometimes referred to as a “Consumer’s Charter.” The major safeguard for the consumer against the vendor for faulty goods is present in Section 16 of the Act. Exceptions to the concept of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) were provided and the interests of the buyer are sufficiently safeguarded. Expressions like “skill and judgment of the seller”, “reliance on sellers’ skill”, and the test of “merchantable quality” ensure effective remedies to buyers. Courts interpreted these rules in the consumer’s favour.[2] The SGA was the sole consumer law until 1986, and with the passage of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, drafted to supplement the remedies being imparted under the SGA. Consumer protection was also provided within India’s criminal justice system also imparted certain protection to the consumers. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 provides a catena of provisions dealing with offences against consumers. It has provisions for offences related to the use of false weights and measures,[3] the sale of adulterated food or drinks, the sale of noxious food or drink, and the sale of adulterated drugs.[4]
Since India’s independence from Britain statutes enacted for consumer protections include the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 and the Standard of Weights and Measures Act, 1976. An advantage of all these acts is that they do not necessitate the consumer to prove mens rea. In fact, “the offences are of strict liability, and not dependent on any particular intention or knowledge.”[5] Criminal law in the sphere of consumer protection has gained more importance, as consumers are less willing to go to the civil courts for meagre claims. It has been claimed that “the functional value of criminal law in the field of consumer protection is a high one and it has a respectable pedigree.”[6] It has been further claimed that an attempt has been made to view consumer protection as “a public interest issue rather than as a private issue” to be left to the people for resolution in court. Apart from the remedies under criminal and contract law, consumers also possess rights under the tort law. However, based on its innumerable legal intricacies, tort law is not considered the best possible way for wronged consumers in India. For example, the conventional doctrine of negligence obligates huge responsibility on the plaintiff to prove before the court every required element. These conventional legal necessities naturally support injured consumers to pursue legal remedies under different laws.[7] Unsurprisingly, it is estimated that for about five decades from 1914 to 1965, only 613 tort cases came before the appellate courts.
The traditional legal necessities under the law of torts as well as contracts obligated the policy makers to draft a separate statute to protect consumers. As a consequence, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was enacted with the intent of dispensing “cheap, simple and quick” justice to consumers in India.
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 and the Development of a Modern Legal Culture
The Indian legal system underwent a revolution with the implementation of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (CPA), which was especially enacted to safeguard consumer interests. The CPA was enacted with avowed purpose. It is thought to impart justice which is “less formal, (and involves) less paperwork, less delay and less expense”. The CPA has gained extensive recognition in India as “poor man’s legislation”, guaranteeing “easy access to justice”. However, the CPA plainly provides a new aspect to rights which have been granted and protected since the early period. It has been correctly said that “the present-day concern for consumer rights . . . is not new and that consumer’s rights like the right to have safe, unadulterated and defect-free commodities at appropriate prices has been recognized since ancient times.”[8]
More than 30 years with the functioning of the CPA indicates its mass acceptance and the legal preference of wronged consumers to enforce their rights under it. The CPA enjoins the consumer’s aid because of its “cost-effectiveness and user-friendliness”. Actually, the CPA constructs a sense of legal consciousness among the people and consequentially, brings impassivity to approach traditional courts, specifically on consumer affairs. It has altered the legal mindset of the people and has made them think foremost of the redressal under the CPA, irrespective of the character of the matter. Summarily, the CPA has infused trust and belief amidst the “teeming millions” of the poverty-stricken litigants. The method in which the consumer fora are swamped with cases and the manner in which these cases are being disposed off generates a sense of “judicial populism” in India in the domain of consumer justice.
The CPA’s eminence lies in its flexile legal structure, extensive jurisdiction and economical justice. CPA provides a blend of principles from both contracts and torts. Summarily, it can be described as “a shorthand term to indicate all the many different aspects of general law.”[9] Primarily, the CPA liberalizes the uncompromising conventional rule of standing and empowers consumers to proceed under the CPA.[10] Consumer groups, the central or any state government are all authorized to file complaints under the CPA.[11] This liberalization exhibited the care that had been taken to fight and represent for the cause of deprived, indifferent and illiterate consumers. The unconventionality of the CPA was the incorporation of both goods and services within its scope. A consumer can bring a suit for faulty products as well as for deficiency of services.[12] In the case of any deficiency, all services, irrespective of whether provided by the public or private companies, can be examined under the CPA. This has also liberalized inflexible procedural necessities and has provided easy and simpler medium of access to justice. For instituting a suit under the CPA, a nominal fee has to be paid by the consumer and there is no need to send any notices to the opposite party. A plain and simple letter addressed to the consumer forum ensures sufficient attention to commence legal measures. Yet another significant procedural liberty is the choice for the consumer whether to engage a lawyer or not. A consumer, if he/she prefers, can represent himself/herself. The plain and simpler steps of action influence consumers to avail for themselves the advantages of the CPA.
Conclusion
The CPA brought a legal revolution by “ushering in the era of consumers” and evolving a modern legal culture among the people to take remedy under the CPA whatever be their grievance. The various Consumer Disputes Redressal organizations viz. the National Commission, the State Commission as well as the District Fora are working together in such a manner which is revolutionizing the current legal system in India and challenging the conventional system of providing justice. By having easy access to the courts through the CPA, consumers now pursue legal conflicts against fraudulent vendors or service providers without any cunctation. The Government of India has also been taking an active interest in safeguarding consumer rights and encouraging effective consumer movements. In the year 2003, the Planning Commission of India recognized “Consumer Awareness, Redressal, and Enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986” as a priority, and as a consequence, a national action plan was developed.[13] India consisting of the majority of the world’s consumers, is dedicated to work for the prosperity of consumers with the help of new legal innovations.

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References

[1] Gordon Borrie & Aubrey L. Diamond, The Consumer, Society and the Law 65 (1964).

[2] Id. at 66.

[3] Indian Penal Code, No. 45 of 1860, ch. 13 §§ 264-67.

[4] Id. at ch. 14 §§ 272-76.

[5] D.N. Saraf, Law of Consumer Protection in India 169 (1990).

[6] Gordon Borrie, The Development of Consumer Law and Policy: Bold Spirits and Timorous Souls 3 (1984).

[7] Wormell v. R.H.M. Agriculture (East), Ltd. [1987] 1 W.L.R. 1901.

[8] Gurjeet Singh “The problem of Consumer Protection in India : A Historical Perspective” Consumer Protection Reporter 704 at 719, n.6 (1994 III).

[9] Bill Thomas, The Legal Framework of Consumer Protection, in Marketing and the Consumer Movement 49 (Jeremy Mitchell ed., 1978).

[10] The Consumer Protection Act, No. 68 of 1986; India Code (1986) ch. 2 § 1(b)(iv).

[11] Id. at ch. 2 § 1(b)(iii).

[12] Id. at ch. 2 § 1(c).

[13] Annual Report 2003-2004, Planning Commission of India (Feb. 10, 2020, 4:40 PM), planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/arep0304/arep0304e.pdf.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Yash Raj is a third-year student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. He has a very keen interest in Intellectual Property Rights, Technology Law, Competition Law and Consumer Protection Law, and he has authored various articles discussing & analyzing various issues related to them. He has also written on topics such as Copyright Law, Trademark Law, Property Law, etc. He has an acumen for research on nascent legal topics

 

In Content Picture Credit: Boston Consulting Group 

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