This January, Neha Suri, a Delhi resident, got refund and compensation from the builder who took money from her offering an apartment and never handed it over. Neha had paid Rs 46 lakh to the builder in 2007. The builder had promised to hand over the apartment in 2010, but never did. In 2015, Neha filed a complaint at the National Consumer Redressal Commission. This January, the Commission ordered the builder to refund her Rs 46 lakh along with simple interest of 10% per year on this amount, and litigation costs of Rs 10,000.
In another consumer case this April, the Hyderabad District Consumer Forum ordered that multiplexes cannot sell water bottles charging above MRP. A moviegoer Vijay Gopal had filed the complaint against an INOX Multiplex that stopped him from carrying his own water bottle, while selling water bottles at more than twice its MRP. The forum made the order applicable to all cinema theatres in Hyderabad and Secunderabad.
In yet another case in April, Bengaluru Urban District Forum ordered all multiplexes and eateries in the city to serve clean, free water to all customers. The order came in a complaint filed by Sudha Katwa last year, who sought Rs 1 as compensation against a KFC outlet that forced her to buy bottled water instead of serving free water.
While traders commonly fleece consumers in many ways, these consumers used the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 to fight back. The orders in their cases not just benefited them, but also held traders/companies accountable for unfair practices. You may have been a victim of such practices too – finding that a box of sweets you just bought was spoilt, not getting internet data services despite paying, or finding your home appliance in a worse condition post-service.
The Consumer Protection Act allows you to file complaints on any goods/service you bought. Goods here imply any movable property, including shares and stocks and growing crops committed to be sold later.
You can represent yourself at the Consumer Disputes Redressal Forums and do not need a lawyer. You only need to write your complaint on plain paper, and pay a nominal fee. Hence the Act is a cheap, easy resort for the common consumer.
Ravindranath Guru, President at Consumer Care Society, Bangalore, says, “Cases in consumer forums usually get resolved soon, unlike court cases. Only about 10% of cases lag – for example, when a big company engages many lawyers to protect its reputation.”
Guru says that arguing a case in a consumer forum is fairly easy as the Act is simple. Consumers just have to follow some procedures – documentation is important. “Maintain receipts for your purchases; do not forgo receipts even when the company says this would help you avoid taxes. If you are getting an appliance serviced, get a job card and ensure that it specifies the details of the service,” he advises. Thus, for example, if one part of an appliance continues to be damaged after repeated services, you can show the job card details as proof of poor service.
Before filing a complaint at any consumer forum, you should send a notice to the company/seller detailing your complaint, says Guru. “The notice should be sent by registered post along with acknowledgement slip, so that the other party cannot ignore it. If you send it by email or courier, it may be ignored. Many traders prefer to settle the issue instead of taking it to court,” he says. If you don’t get an appropriate response from the trader, you can approach the consumer forum.
Here is a round-up of all the important details you should know about consumer forums.
When are you a ‘consumer’?
You are a consumer under the Consumer Protection Act if:
- You had brought a product/service for a consideration/payment. The consideration may be paid, promised, or partly paid and partly promised. If you got goods/services free of charge, you are not a consumer. Hence government services are not covered under the Act.
- The product/service must have been bought for your personal use, or to help you earn your livelihood through self-employment. An example of self-employment is buying and operating a photocopying machine for livelihood. Or buying a car and hiring a person to drive it as a taxi. You are also a consumer if you used a product with the buyer’s approval.
- You avail any service under a ‘contract for service,’ instead of a ‘contract of service’. Contract for service implies hiring a party for their skills/knowledge, who is not subject to your directions, such as a lawyer. On the other hand, contract of service implies the relationship between an employer and employee.
However, if you buy many units in order to run a full-fledged business – like renting out a fleet of cars as Ola Cabs – you are not a consumer, and will have to rely on other laws. You are also not a consumer if the machinery you bought is used to manufacture new products.
Who can file complaints?
- A Consumer
- Any voluntary consumer association
- The Central or a state government
- A group of consumers with the same interest
- A legal heir or representative, in case of the consumer’s death
When can you complain?
There are primarily four scenarios in which you can complain:
- Deficiency/defect in product/service – any fault or shortcoming in the quality, quantity, purity, standard etc required as per law, contract or trader’s claims. For example, a cooker that is supposed to cook in 30 minutes, but does not. Or a lawyer who does not attend hearings.
- Charging above the stipulated price. For example, soft drinks or water bottles being sold above MRP in multiplexes
- Goods/services hazardous to life or safety, on sale to public
- Suffering loss/damage because of unfair/restrictive trade practices, like:
– False representation: Goods/service not having the specified quality/standard, or the claimed benefit or warranty. If the seller doesn’t have the required affiliation, or sells second hand goods as new
– Misleading price
– False advertisement of selling at bargain price. Offering gifts to lure in customers, but not giving those
– Selling goods that don’t conform to the safety standards prescribed by the concerned authority, such as FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India)
– Hoarding/destroying goods to increase prices of a category of goods
– Making/selling spurious goods, or being deceptive in providing services
– Delay beyond the agreed period in providing goods/service, that has increased/can increase prices
-Demanding that consumers buy one goods item/service as a precondition to buying another
If any of these issues exist, traders’ disclaimers like ‘No exchange or refund’, do not carry any weight legally.
What relief can you seek?
- Removing defects from goods/services
- Replacement or refund
- Compensation for loss/injury. You should justify the compensation amount – specific losses should be detailed and quantified
- Getting the trader to stop the unfair trade practice, or withdrawing or stopping manufacture of a hazardous goods/service
- If many unidentified consumers suffered losses, forum can order the trader to pay an amount to the government’s Consumer Welfare Fund. This amount won’t be below 5% of the value of the defective goods/service.
- In case of a misleading advertisement, issuing a corrective one
Where can you complain?
You can complain at the district, state or national levels, depending on your claim value, i.e., the value of defective goods/services plus the compensation you claim. If your claim value is Rs 20 lakh or lower, the complaint should be filed at the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum. Every district has this forum, and it is presided over by a District Judge or a person qualified to be so.
If the claim value is between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 1 cr, approach the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, which is headed by a High Court Judge. Both district and state authorities have three members overall, one of whom is a woman.
If claim value is above Rs 1 cr, file your complaint at the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission in Delhi. This commission is presided over by a Supreme Court Judge. It will have five members, one of whom is a woman. An order from the district level can be challenged at the state level, and then at the National Commission. The National Commission’s order can be challenged at the Supreme Court. Appeals should be filed within 30 days of getting the order.
You should file the complaint at the redressal forum in the jurisdiction of which the opposite party lives, works for gain, does business or has a branch office, or where the cause of dispute wholly or partly arose.
How does one file a complaint?
You should file the complaint within two years of the incident. After this, complaints are accepted only if you can satisfactorily explain every day of delay to the consumer forum/commission.
You can file the complaint on plain paper, including these details:
- Name and address of complainant and opposite party
- Date of purchase and amount paid
- Particulars of the goods/service
- Explicitly mention the complaint – whether it is about unfair trade practice, charging above MRP, etc
- Documents to prove your claim, like receipts and copy of any communication with the trader
- Relief sought
- Signature of complainant or authorised agent
For a quick reference of the above template, you can click here and save the format.
You can register the complaint personally, through an authorised agent or by post. At hearings, you can argue the case yourself, or have an authorised person/agency – not necessarily a lawyer – represent you.
For complaints made to the district and state level forums, submit three copies of the complaint, plus as many copies as the number of opposing parties in your complaint. In the case of complaints to the national commission, it should be four copies plus one each for opposing parties.
Along with the complaint, pay the fee through a crossed DD on a nationalised bank, or a crossed IPO (Indian Postal Order), in favour of the Registrar of the Forum/Commission, payable at its location.
Here’s the fee you have to pay:
- For complaints in a District Forum:
1. For claim value upto Rs 1 lakh: No fee for BPL complainants who can produce an attested copy of Antyodaya Anna Yojana Cards. Rs 100 for others
2. For Rs 1-5 lakhs: Rs 200
3. For Rs 5-10 lakhs: Rs 400
4. For Rs 10-20 lakhs: Rs 500
- For complaints with the State Commission
1. For claim value of Rs 20-50 lakh: Fee of Rs 2000
2. For Rs 50 lakh – 1 cr: Rs 4000
- For complaints in the National Commission: Rs 5000
You can contact the national consumer helpline at 1800-11-4000 or go to the National Consumer Helpline for guidance. To know more, refer to this consumer handbook.
While the Consumer Protection Act gives you redressal as a consumer, there are other Acts under which you can hold companies/traders accountable. For example, if you get food poisoning from a packaged product or a restaurant meal, you can complain to the District Food Safety Officer under the FSS (Food Safety and Standards) Act, 2006.
If you want to complain against false/misleading advertisements, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory organisation for advertising industry. Similarly, banks have the Banking Ombudsman Scheme.
“Such bodies will hold the company accountable, but will not give you relief as a consumer. So whether you should approach these bodies or the consumer forum would depend on the kind of relief you want,” says Guru.
TIPS FOR CONSUMERS