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Forums delay justice, consumers sweat it out

Chennai: The average consumer is neither bereft of consumption choices nor a passive observer of unscrupulous market practices. But legal redressal of grievance is nothing short of an ordeal. With a protracted battle that might span a decade, justice at times is delayed and denied.

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 1986 provides for expeditious hearing of the case and its disposal within three months, except for products which require laboratory testing.

However, according to the judgment records in Computerisation and Computer Networking of Consumer Forums in the Country (ConfoNet), it takes an average of three years for a verdict.

R Desikan, consumer activist and founder trustee of Consumer Association of India (CAI), pointed out two cases that have been pending for more than five years. In 2002, CAI had filed a complaint against a supermarket chain for selling a packet of imported dates infested with worms. The case has been pending for a decade. The second case against a water manufacturing unit that claimed to sell herbal water had been pending since 2004, said Desikan.

On other occasions, following the verdict, the opposite party took recourse to delaying tactics. Desikan highlighted a case against a spurious tea manufacturer in 2006 where following the case registered by CAI and department of civil supplies, the state commission had slapped an exemplary fine of 25 lakh. It then moved the national commission and after three years, the case has now been reverted to the state commission, he said.

"There should be a cap on the number of adjournments sought by opposite parties," said advocate Sanjay Pinto explaining the inordinate delay at the forum. This was against the principles of Consumer Protection Act which stood for expeditious disposal of cases, he said.

Statistics from the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) shows 2,263 cases were pending with State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and 6,271 cases were pending in district forums in TN as of October 2013. And then, there are other bottlenecks. Tamil Nadu, which has 30 consumer forums across the state, has the fourth highest number of vacancies in the district forums (24) after Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

To add to the woes, consumerism might not always translate into awareness of rights. Despite the proactive role of consumer NGOs, one is still taken for a ride, said Pinto, pointing out that a plethora of discounts were being offered on goods with a small clause, 'terms and conditions apply.' Also, many offices display wrong disclaimers like 'no liability for using the lift' and shops flout rules with signs like 'goods once sold will not be returned', he said.

Medical goof-up: A case of medical negligence was filed in 1998. Against the state commission's order an appeal was filed in the national commission, which reverted after five years.

In 2013, a compensation of 7 lakh was provided. The patient died before the verdict came

Realty bites: A complaint against a realtor claiming compensation of 2 lakh for violating the construction agreement was filed in October 2003. It took 10 years for the state commission to dismiss the complaint stating "suppression of facts" in October 2013

On a sticky wicket: In 2000, a complaint was filed against Hindustan Lever after pieces of glass were found in a bottle of jam. The district forum awarded compensation 40,000 in 2013 observing that the company had needlessly dragged the matter for 13 years.

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