“Anyone who sleeps over his rights is bound to suffer and the law leans in favor of those who are alert and vigilant” rightly said by the hon’ble Srinagar HC. As we are aware that every remedy may it be criminal or civil is barred by the law of limitation. Even equality must be claimed at the right juncture and not on expiry of reasonable time. One of the main and vital challenges in every adjudication is the period of ‘limitation’. It is worth noting that Section 24A of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 specifies the limitation. Even though now the act has been repealed and replaced by The Consumer Protection Act, 2019 the limitation clause has seen no amendments.
AN OVERVIEW OF 1986 ACT
The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 was created by the Indian government in order to safeguard consumers against market abuse. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (COPRA) was a Parliament of India Act created to defend the interests of Indian consumers. It was repealed in 2019 by the Consumer Protection Act. The measure was voted by the Assembly in October 1986 and took effect on December 24, 1986. The right statute was enacted prior to the COPRA act. It was created to establish consumer councils and other bodies for the resolution of consumer disputes and related topics.
This act is based on the doctrine of Caveat Emptor which means that it is the responsibility of the buyer to identify the defects in the good.
The Consumer Protection Act, implemented in 1986, gave easy and fast compensation to consumer grievances. It safeguards and encourages consumers to speak against insufficiency and flaws in goods and services. If traders and manufacturers practice any illegal trade, this act protects their rights as a consumer. The primary motivation of this forum is to bestow aid to both parties and eliminate lengthy lawsuits.
THE 2019 ACT AND MAJOR CHANGES
In the present times, the demands and expectations of the consumer have changed due to increasing awareness and globalization and thus the protection of the rights of consumers is important. The Consumer Protection act 1986 almost a 3-decade old act was replaced by a new Consumer Protection act 2019. The Consumer Protection act 2019 was published in the official gazette on 9 August 2019 after it received the assent of the President of India.
The key difference between the Act of 1986 and 2019 are as follows:
- The CPA 1986 was narrower in scope it covers only 6 types of Unfair trade Practices / Deceptive Practices while as CPA 2019 is broader in scope it adds more than 3 new unfair trade practices.
- In CPA 1986 there were no provisions for product liability while the new act contains the provisions of Product Liability.
- In CPA 1986 there were no provisions for Unfair Contacts while the new act contains provisions for Unfair Contacts.
- There were no provisions for E-commerce and direct selling in the old act, but CPA 2019 contains specific provisions for E-commerce and direct selling.
- In CPA 1986 Lower Pecuniary limits of District Forum up to 20 lakhs; State commission- 20 lakhs to 1 crore; and National Commission above 1 Crore however the New Act 2019 has higher pecuniary limits of District Forum up to 1 crore; State commission 1 Crore to 10 Crores; National Commission- above 10 Crores.
- The role of Central Protection Councils in the 1986 act was to promote and protect the rights of Consumers and the role of CPCs in the New act 2019 is to act as advisory bodies for the promotion and protection of Consumer rights.
- In CPA 1986 there were no provisions for alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. The New CPA 2019 contains provisions for mediation/ alternative dispute resolution.
- In the old act, no regulator was in existence; in the new act, a regulator by the name of the Central Consumer Protection Authority shall be established.
- A person failing to comply with the orders of the Commission could face imprisonment between one month and three years or a fine between Rs 2000 to Rs 10000 or both in the CPA 1986 In the CPA 2019, A person failing to comply with the orders of Commission can face imprisonment up to three years or fine not less than Rs 25000 which may extend to Rs one lakh or both.
- In CPA 1986 for the selection of members in consumer dispute Redressal Commissions, different Committees were prescribed but in CPA 2019 there is no provision for selection Committees. The Central government has the power to appoint the members.
The act majorly has not seen any change in terms of the limitation period clause. While talking about the limitation period the act sets a bar of limitation to the complaints and appeals.
The act provides the maximum period for the aggrieved party to complain in section 24-A of the COPRA 1986, and section 69 of the 2019 act. Both the sections when read give the same interpretation. The sections specify the time limit for filing complaints under the act. According to the definition, the complaint must be filed with the District Forum, State Commission, or National Commission within two years of the emergence of the cause of action. However, sub-clause (2) of the said provision states that a complaint filed after the prescribed period will be considered if the complainant provides the Forums, State, and National Commissions with sufficient reason for not filing within the prescribed period. A provision is also included that requires the Forum, State Commission, and National Commission to document the reasons for the delay and proceed to hear such a delayed complaint.
In the case of Mehnga Singh Khera & Anr. vs M/S. Unitech Ltd. the hon’ble court was of the view that “It is a settled legal proposition that failure to give possession of flat is continuous wrong and constitutes a recurrent cause of action and if the possession is not delivered to the buyers, they have every cause, grievance and right to approach the consumer courts. It is only when the seller virtually refused to give possession, that the period of limitation prescribed under section 24(A) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 would start. The Complainant must file a case within two years from the date of the refusal of delivery of possession to the buyer. Therefore, the cause of action continues to subsist in favor of the Complainant.”
The court affirmed in State bank of India v. M/s B.S. Agricultural Industries that the expression, `shall not admit a complaint’ occurring in Section 24A is sort of a legislative command to the consumer forum to examine on its own whether the complaint has been filed within the limitation period prescribed thereunder. As a matter of law, the consumer forum must deal with the complaint on merits only if the complaint has been filed within two years from the date of accrual of cause of action and if beyond the said period, sufficient cause has been shown and delay condoned for the reasons recorded in writing. In other words, it is the duty of the consumer forum to take notice of Section 24A and effect it. If the complaint is barred by time and yet, the consumer forum decides the complaint on merits, the forum would be committing an illegality and, therefore, the aggrieved party would be entitled to have such order set aside.
In Union of India and Another v. British India Corporation Ltd. and Others, while dealing with an aspect of limitation for an application for refund prescribed in Business Profits Tax Act, 1947, this Court held that the question of limitation was a mandate to the forum and, irrespective of the fact whether it was raised or not, the forum must consider and apply it.
In Haryana Urban Development Authority v. B.K. Sood, the Court while dealing with the same provision held that “Section 24-A of the act expressly casts a duty on the Commission admitting a complaint, to dismiss a complaint unless the complainant satisfies the District Forum, the State Commission or the National Commission, as the case may be, that the complainant had sufficient cause for not filing the complaint within the period of two years from the date on which the cause of action had arisen.”
Thus, the section debars any fora set up under the Act, admitting a complaint unless the complaint is filed within two years from the date of which the cause of action has arisen. Neither the National Commission nor the State Commission had considered the appellant’s preliminary objections that the respondent’s claim was barred by time.
However, the court has acknowledged the fact that the suppliers are at par in terms of protection than the consumer. The hon’ble supreme court in the case National Insurance Company Ltd. v. Hindustan Safety Glassworks Ltd. & Anr. expressed their concern on this matter – in a dispute concerning a consumer, it is necessary for the courts to take a pragmatic view of the rights of the consumer principally since it is the consumer who is placed at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the supplier of services or goods. It was further held that the very purpose of beneficent legislation, in the form of the Consumer Protection Act, is to overcome this disadvantage. The provision of limitation in the Act cannot be strictly construed to disadvantage a consumer in a case where a supplier of goods or services itself is instrumental in causing a delay in the settlement of the consumer’s claim.
The limitation clause provides the right as well as bars it to the extent of time. Following the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country, on 10th January 2022, the Supreme Court of India directed that the period from 15.03.2020 till 28.02.2022 shall be excluded for the purposes of limitation as may be prescribed under any general or special laws for all judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings.
Consequently, on 14th January 2021, the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission issued directions to its Registry for compliance and computation of limitation period.
The order extends directions for compliance for:
- Computation for delay in matters in which the Limitation has expired on or before 14.03.2020
- Computation of delay in matters in which the Limitation expires between 15.02.2020 and 28.02.2022
The order also maintains that the directions issued by the Supreme Court shall not be applicable in matters filed/instituted against orders which shall be passed by the State Commissions on or before 01.03.2022. Such matters shall be subjected to standard procedure for computation of limitation period.
According to a report, there are nearly 329 million citizens which means almost 70% of Indian citizens mobile internet users will shop online. The new consumer protection act 2019 is thus going to be very helpful if we look at this number and further without the protection of consumer rights no economy in the world will flourish. We can say that the Consumer Protection Act, of 2019 has been brought into force for enhanced protection of the rights of the consumers. It has covered within its ambit, the many possibilities of the violations that can happen along with the digitization of most services.
The aforesaid judgments passed by the Hon’ble court have aligned to protect the interests of the consumers. The court has acted as a guarding shield between the aggrieved consumers and the alleged parties. However, the law also states that if a person is inactive at first and wants the remedy after completition of the prescribed period the courts may reprimand and wouldn’t be able to provide remedy until a sufficient cause is presented.
Though the courts are considerate of one’s suffering, but they do not oblige remedy on the cost of law. In my opinion, the limitation period provided in the act gives sufficient time for a plaintiff consumer to approach the authorities.
(2003) 9 SCC 50
(2006) 1 SCC 164
CONSUMER CASE NO. 1395 OF 2017
CIVIL APPEAL NO. 2067 OF 2002
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