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Lawyers not under Consumer Protection Act (CPA)

  • Context (TOI I IE): The SC held that advocates are not liable for service deficiencies under the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and cannot be sued for poor service in consumer courts.
  • The judgment stems from an appeal against the 2007 NCDRC decision that lawyers’ services fall under Section 2(O) of the CPA, 1986.
    • If there is any deficiency in service, the NCDRC held that a complaint could be filed under the CPA.
  • SC is also considering whether medical professionals should be protected from CPA.

SC’s Ruling

  • The success of “professionals” often depends on factors outside their control.
  • Clients cannot take legal action against their lawyers by claiming they did not provide proper “service” as per the CPA.
  • A lawyer’s services must be treated differently from any other business or trade.
  • The distinction between the terms ‘business’ and ‘trade’, which imply a commercial interest, and the term ‘profession’, which involves a specialised branch of learning or science, is crucial.
  • An advocate’s actions affect not only the client but the entire justice delivery system, making it “unique.”
  • The term ‘service’ is defined very broadly under the CPA but excludes free services and contracts of personal service.
    • The advocate and client enter into a contract of personal service, which cannot be a source of challenge under the CPA.
  • SC’s decision in Indian Medical Association v V.P. Shantha (1995) — where the court held that services by medical practitioners would fall under the CPA — should be revisited.

Petitioner’s Argument

  • The legal profession must be differentiated from other businesses or trades, and even among other professions, lawyers occupy a unique space.
  • Lawyers cannot act as a “mouthpiece” for their clients even after payment of fees as lawyers have duties to the court and their opponent as per the Bar Council of India Rules, 1961.
    • As a part of a lawyer’s duty toward the court, they must “refuse to represent clients who insist on unfair means.
  • Lawyers do not have control over the outcome of a case due to the complexity of legal issues, which involve intricate statutes and case laws and often lack a definitive answer.
  • Legal outcomes are also dependent on the strategies of the opposing side.
  • Unlike medicine, where a universal standard of care exists, no such objective standard applies in law due to each lawyer’s unique style of advocacy.
  • The Advocates Act of 1961 provides remedies for professional misconduct, and the Advocates Act gives Bar Councils (both at the state and national level) disciplinary powers in such cases.
    • The Advocates Act would be applied rather than the CPA regarding advocates’ conduct.

Consumer Protection Act, 2019

  • It came into force in 2020.
  • The new act will be swift and less time-consuming compared to the older CPA, 1986, in which single-point access to justice was given, making it a time-consuming exercise.
  • The old act provided for a three-tier consumer dispute redressal machinery at the National (National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission), State and District levels.

Provisions of the Act

  • The CPA 2019 establishes the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA), whose primary objective is to promote, protect, and enforce consumer rights.
  • It is empowered to:
    1. Conduct investigations into violations of consumer rights and institute complaints/prosecution.
    2. Order recall of unsafe goods and services.
    3. Order discontinuance of unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements.
    4. Impose penalties on manufacturers/endorsers/publishers for misleading advertisements.

Product Liability

  • A manufacturer, service provider, or seller must compensate for injury or damage caused by defective products or deficient services.
  • Basis for product liability action:
    1. Manufacturing defect.
    2. Design defect.
    3. Deviation from manufacturing specifications.
    4. Not conforming to express warranty.
    5. Failing to contain adequate instructions for correct use.
    6. Service provided-faulty, imperfect or deficient.

Punishment for Manufacture or Sale of Adulterated/Spurious Goods

  1. For a first conviction, a court may suspend the person’s license for up to two years.
    • For subsequent convictions, it may cancel the license permanently.

Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanism of Mediation

  • A complaint will be referred by a Consumer Commission for mediation wherever scope for early settlement exists and parties agree to it.
  • The mediation will be held in the Mediation Cells, which will be established under the aegis of the Consumer Commissions.
  • There will be no appeal against settlement through mediation.

Simplification of the Consumer Dispute Adjudication Process

  • Empowering the State and District Commissions to review their own orders.
  • Enabling a consumer to file complaints electronically and in consumer commissions that have jurisdiction over the place of his residence.
  • Video-conferencing for hearing and deemed admissibility of complaints if the question of admissibility is not decided within the specified period of 21 days.

Other Rules and Regulations

  • As per the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission Rules, there will be no fee for filing cases up to Rs. 5 lakh.
  • The credit for the amount due to unidentifiable consumers will go to the Consumer Welfare Fund (CWF).
  • State Commissions will furnish the GOI with quarterly information on vacancies, disposals, the pendency of cases, and other matters.
  • The Central Consumer Protection Council Rules provide for the constitution of the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC):
    1. It will be an advisory body on consumer issues
    2. It will be headed by the Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, with the Minister of State as Vice Chairperson and 34 other members.
    3. It will have a three-year tenure and will have a Minister-in-charge of consumer affairs from two States in each region—North, South, East, West, and North-East Region.

      Consumer Protection Act 2019 - PMF IAS

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