Concerned over massive vacancies and severe deficiency in the infrastructure across consumer courts in the country, the Supreme Court had asked the Central government whether a "legislative impact study" was carried out before a new consumer protection law was notified in July 2020. An SC bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, directed the government to place the said study before the court to indicate if social, economic and institutional impacts were taken into account before replacing the 1986 consumer protection law with the 2019 law, which was brought into force in July 2020.
The Bench, which also included justice Hemant Gupta, underlined that the new law widened the meaning of "consumer" allowing them to file a complaint from his place of residence; brought e-commerce platforms within the fold of the law; provided for time-bound redressal; made celebrity-endorsers also liable and enhanced the monetary jurisdiction of the consumer courts at all levels. Under the 2019 law, a district forum can decide a consumer dispute to ? one crore against ?20 lakh under the old law. Similarly, the state commission's monetary jurisdiction has been enhanced from ? one crore to ? ten crores, and a national commission can now decide disputes over and above ? ten crores.
Citing these radical changes, the Bench stated that the new act expands the jurisdiction of the consumer forums to many new areas and thus, logically, a legislative impact study ought to have been completed, keeping in mind the litigation, which will shift in the subjects added to the jurisdiction of the consumer tribunals. There is also a shifting of pecuniary jurisdiction. It would also result in the transfer of a large number of cases between forums. Thus, the legislative impact study ought to have considered this as to the cases that are likely to be shifted. Noting that more than 600 vacancies existed across the consumer courts, the court emphasised that these aspects should have formed a part of the "legislative impact study" to ascertain the volume of cases the consumer courts at different levels will be burdened with not only now but in the reasonable time in the future.
The Bench maintained that here should have been analysis, both at the state level and at the national level, of the number of fora which are required to deal with the increase in the financial jurisdiction and the expanded legal area of jurisdiction, as it took up suo motu case on the alleged "inaction of the government" in appointing members of the consumer courts and providing adequate infrastructure.
"This is hardly expected at the apex level, as it creates a cascading effect down, which does not speak well of the institution. We expect due care to be taken on this behalf so that at least these vacancies are filled up by the time we take up these proceedings on the next date," rued the court, fixing April 12 as the next date. The court also directed chief secretaries of all the state governments to send the latest vacancy positions to the national commission to upload them on the website and notify the new rules for appointments in the consumer courts, besides filing their reports on the existing infrastructure.
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