The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) stipulates that the party against whom a complaint is lodged must file its reply within a particular time frame. Consumer experience has shown that this stipulation has often been ignored, granting extension of time repeatedly “in the interest of justice”. In a landmark ruling delivered by a specially constituted three-judge bench, the Supreme Court has now authoritatively laid down that the time stipulated under the CPA must be strictly adhered to. [Civil Appeal Nos. 10941 10942 of 2013 New India Assurance Co. Ltd. v/s Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Pvt. Ltd. & other connected matter, decided on December 4, 2015.]

Case Study: The CPA provides that the party against whom a complaint has been filed must give its version within 30 days or such extended period not exceeding 15 days as may be granted by the consumer fora. There were conflicting judgments on the interpretation of this provision even by the Supreme Court. The issue was whether this period was mandatory, or merely procedural and directory.

In Topline Shoes Ltd. v/s Corporation Bank, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court had held that the time for filing of the version, being a procedural requirement, is merely directory. So, in the interest of justice, a consumer forum will have the discretion to extend the time beyond the stipulated period of 45 days.

Overruling this interpretation, a three-judge Bench of the Surpreme Court, in Dr JJ Merchant &Ors. v/s Shrinath Chaturvedi, on August 12, 2002, interpreted this section to be mandatory. Considering that the law provided for a capping of 30 + 15 days, it was held that the reply must be filed with a maximum period of 45 days, and no extension could be granted beyond this period.

In the case of Kailash v/s Nanhku & Ors., while interpreting a provision in respect of the law pertaining to elections, another three-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the time frame for filing the reply was not mandatory, but merely directory. So, in the interests of justice, the court would be entitled to grant further extension beyond the period stipulated by law. This decision was given on April 6, 2005, without considering the interpretation of law in the earlier case.

The Supreme Court resolved the conflicting interpretations through its judgment of December 4, 2015. It observed that consumer fora are bound to follow the procedure prescribed under the CPA. The law provides that the version in reply to the complaint has to be filed within a period of 30 days or such extended period not exceeding 15 days, as may be granted. This provision is for having a speedy trial. If this period is not adhered to, it will defeat the legislative mandate to dispose of consumer cases within three months, or five months, where laboratory testing of goods is required.

In a judgment delivered by Justice Anil Dave for the bench along with Justices Vikarmajit Sen and Pinaki Chandra Ghose, it concluded that the interpretation in JJ Merchant’s case was correct.Accordingly, the court concluded that the legislative mandate to file the version within a maximum period of 45 days must be strictly adhered to.

Impact: This landmark ruling will ensure that opposite parties do not delay filing their version to deliberately delay the proceedings in order to harass the consumer.

(The author is a consumer activist and has won the Govt. of India’s National Youth Award for Consumer Protection. His e-mail address is jehangir.gai.articles@hotmail.com)

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Source: TOI-MUM