The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in January 2018. The Bill replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Previously in 2015, a Bill had been introduced to replace the 1986 Act. The 2015 Bill acknowledged that the rapid change in consumer markets, introduction of practices such as misleading advertisements, and new modes of transactions (online, teleshopping, etc.) had necessitated the need for a new law. The Bill was subsequently referred to a Standing Committee, which recommended several changes to it. The Bill was withdrawn and replaced with the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018. The Bill is listed for passage in the ongoing Monsoon Session. In this post, we analyse the Bill in its current form.
How is the 2018 Bill different from the 1986 Act?
The Bill adds various provisions for consumer protection that were absent in the 1986 Act. Key among them are the provisions on product liability and unfair contracts. Under product liability, when a consumer suffers an injury, property damage or death due to a defect in a product or service, he can file a claim for compensation under product liability. The Bill outlines cases in which the product manufacturer, service provider and seller will be held guilty under product liability. Under the proposed law, to claim product liability, an aggrieved consumer has to prove any one of the conditions mentioned in the Bill with regard to a manufacturer, service provider and seller, as the case may be.
An unfair contract has been defined as a contract between a consumer and manufacturer/ service provider if it causes significant change in consumer rights. Unfair contracts cover six terms, such as payment of excessive security deposits in an arrangement, disproportionate penalty for a breach, and unilateral termination without cause. The consumer courts being set up under the Bill will determine contract terms to be unfair and declare them null and void.
What are the different bodies being set up under the Bill?
The Bill sets up Consumer Protection Councils as advisory bodies, who will advise on protection and promotion of consumer rights. However, it does not make it clear who these Councils will render advise to. Under the 1986 Act, the Consumer Protection Councils have the responsibility to protect and promote consumer rights.
To promote, protect, and enforce consumer rights, the Bill is setting up a regulatory body, known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This Authority can also pass orders to prevent unfair and restrictive trade practices, such as selling goods not complying with standards, and impose penalties for false and misleading advertisements.
The Bill also sets up the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (known as consumer courts) at the district, state and national levels. These Commissions will adjudicate a broad range of complaints, including complaints on defective goods and deficient services of varying values. These Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act. However, their pecuniary jurisdiction (amount up to which they can hear complaints) has been revised under the Bill. The Bill also adds a provision for alternate dispute redressal mechanism. As part of this, mediation cells will be attached with the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions.
What are the penal provisions under the Bill?
The Bill increases penalties for different offences specified in it. It also adds penalties for offences such as issuing misleading advertisements, and manufacturing and selling adulterated or spurious goods. For example, in case of false and misleading advertisements, the Central Consumer Protection Authority can impose a penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh on a manufacturer or an endorser. For a subsequent offence, the fine may extend to Rs 50 lakh. The manufacturer can also be punished with imprisonment of up to two years, which may extend to five years for every subsequent offence. The Authority can also prohibit the endorser of a misleading advertisement from endorsing any particular product or service for a period of up to one year. For every subsequent offence, the period of prohibition may extend to three years. There are certain exceptions when an endorser will not be held liable for such a penalty.
Are there any issues to think about in the Bill?
The 2018 Bill is a marked improvement over the 2015 Bill and addresses several issues in the 2015 Bill. However, two major issues with regard to the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions remain. We discuss them below.
First issue is with regard to the composition of these Commissions. The Bill specifies that the Commissions will be headed by a ‘President’ and will comprise other members. However, the Bill delegates the power of deciding the qualifications of the President and members to the central government. It also does not specify that the President or members should have minimum judicial qualifications. This is in contrast with the existing Consumer Protection Act, 1986, which states that the Commissions at various levels will be headed by a person qualified to be a judge. The 1986 Act also specifies the minimum qualification of members.
Under the current Bill, if the Commissions were to have only non-judicial members, it may violate the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. Since these Commissions are adjudicating bodies and will look at consumer dispute cases, it is unclear how a Commission that may comprise only non-judicial members will undertake this function.
Second issue is with regard to the method of appointment of members of the Commissions. The Bill permits the central government to notify the method of appointment of members of the Commissions. It does not require that the selection involve members from the higher judiciary. It may be argued that allowing the executive to determine the appointment of the members of Commissions could affect the independent functioning of the Commissions. This provision is also at variance with the 1986 Act. Under the Act, appointment of members to these Commissions is done through a selection committee. These section committees comprise a judicial member.
As mentioned previously, the Commissions are intended to be quasi-judicial bodies, while the government is part of the executive. There may be instances where the government is a party to a dispute relating to deficiency in service provided by a government enterprise, for e.g., the Railways. In such a case, there would be a conflict of interest as the government would be a party to the dispute before the Commissions and will also have the power to appoint members to the Commission.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.