Consumer protection is and has always been an underrated right in Sikkim. People don’t favour going to courts to enforce the rights guaranteed by the consumer law. But when we look at the consumer jurisprudence, we see the emergence of jaw-dropping cases that start from trivial matters. Sadly, in our state when something ridiculous happens with a consumer, people seem to be more proactive in uploading exclusively on their social media, rather than approaching the right forums/courts and getting adequate solutions.
Being a consumer, among other things that are common, is levying excessive service charge by restaurants and hotels, cold storage/ refrigerator charges in cold drinks, rates excessive to the MRPs, selling goods beyond expiry, etc. In this situation, the onus of protecting consumer rights rests on consumers themselves by being well informed and assured.
An interesting and seemingly trivial legal case that reminds me of being a ‘King Consumer’ is of Stella Liebeck V. McDonalds aka McDonald’s coffee case wherein the year 1992, a 79-year-old woman from Mexico brought a hot cup of coffee from McDonald’s. When the lid popped off and spilt over her lap while driving a car, her lower half was burnt by the sizzling hot coffee. She ultimately had to sue the McDonalds for a whopping 7 million euros claiming it to be hot enough to cause injury and hotter than coffee served in other food chains.
There are many such examples of being an informed consumer but for the sake of brevity, the above example can demonstrate us a lesson of what it means to be an informed and assured consumer.
This month, the Lok Sabha has passed a new Consumer Protection Bill which aims for a systemic overhaul of the earlier act of 1986. The Bill which aims to replace the 1986 Act is necessitated for strengthening consumer rights in view of modern-day challenges. Now an aggrieved consumer can file a consumer case in the place where a consumer resides or personally works for gain. The new bill also seeks to enhance the pecuniary jurisdiction for the value of goods and services of less than 1 Crore in District Commission and above 1 Crore to 10 Crores before the State Commission.
The other important highlights of the Bill to protect the consumers from the clutches of errant goods and service providers are –
Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA)
This national level regulatory body seeks to protect the rights of the consumer and regulate the violation of the consumer rights, unfair trade practices and misleading advertisement. This authority comprising of the Chief Commissioner has the power to file complaint on behalf of mass consumers before the appropriate consumer courts and also has the power to inquiry on any violation of consumer rights.
E-Commerce under the ambit of the new law
The modern market place where we purchase products with a click of our fingers contains a plethora of goods and services. The rapid development of e-commerce has rendered the consumer vulnerable to new forms of unfair trade and unethical practices. To curb such malpractices the new bill aims to screw up the e-commerce companies those who influence pricing, unfairly promote products or misrepresent the quality of goods and services sold on their platforms.
Liability of Celebrity endorsers and misleading advertisement
Concept of a modern marketing strategy for promoting goods and services is made through endorsement by the celebrity. Consumers’ behaviour towards availing goods and services is determined by the level of advertisement endorsed by the celebrity. Till now there was no statutory law to make celebrity liable in case of false and misleading endorsement. The new bill seeks to impose penalties to the endorsers if any advertisement endorsed by the celebrity without exercising due diligence is found to be misleading. The CCPA has the power to investigate, impose ban and penalties up to 10 lakh.
Product liability means the responsibility of a product manufacturer or product seller of any product or service, to compensate for any harm caused to a consumer by such defective product manufactured or sold or by a deficiency in services relating thereto.
A product liability action may be brought by a complainant against a product manufacturer or a product service provider or a product seller, as the case may be, for any harm caused to him on account of a defective product.
This means a contract which is between a manufacturer, trader, service provider and a consumer which has the terms that causes significant change in the rights of such consumer, which includes the following: (i) requiring excessive security deposits to be given by the consumer. (ii) imposing unreasonable penalty for a breach of contract. (iii) refusing to accept early repayment of debts; (iv) entitling a party to a contract to terminate such contract without unilaterally (v) transferring a contract to a third party to the detriment of the consumer and without his consent; or (vi) imposing unreasonable charge or obligations which put the consumer at a disadvantaged position.
The State and National Commissions may determine if the terms of a contract are unfair and declare such terms to be null and void.
It will be too early to say as to how much this law will favour the aggrieved consumer but one thing I vouch for is encompassing in the Consumer Protection Act is the inclusion of the entitlement of compensation from the power distribution companies if they fail to impart regular power connection. In case of unscheduled power cuts, a consumer should be entitled to adequate compensation in accordance with the given circumstances.
The content of this article is intended to foster a general guide, specific instruction is to be taken as per one’s own facts and circumstances.
The author is an Advocate who hails from Malbasey, Budang village under Soreng Sub-Division, West Sikkim and is currently practising law before the Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court. He can be contacted via his email id firstname.lastname@example.org.