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This article has been written by Harshita Varshney from Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University. The author has tried to analyze the effect of Coronavirus pandemic over the working of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. 

Introduction

The first wave of Coronavirus disease started in 2019 in China and gradually spread around the world. The prevailing human lifestyle tossed within a flash and came to a standstill. The spread of the virus resulted in a pandemic with no weapon to fight against it. The impact is so poignant that there is no industry which is not affected. The travel is on hold affecting the hospitality and tourism industry while on the other hand, the migrant labourers are in bad shape. There is a change in consumer behaviour due to the spreading virus affecting the demand and supply chain. Similarly, the legal system of India is adversely affected which also includes the working of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. The NCDRC was set up in 1988 under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It is a quasi-judicial authority which was set up for providing inexpensive and speedy redressal of consumer disputes. 

An overview of the NCDRC under Consumer Protection Act, 2019

The Consumer Act, 1986 was replaced by the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (hereinafter 2019 Act). The 2019 Act was published in the Official Gazette on 9th August 2019 after receiving the President’s assent. However, it came into effect from 20th July 2020. This new law on the matter related to consumers has brought many changes which are beneficial to the consumers. Some of the important changes are that now E-commerce Companies will also fall in the ambit of this act, consumers will not be charged with any fee for filing their complaints up to five lakh rupees, the National Commission now has jurisdiction to entertain complaints of goods and services up to value of rupees ten crores and there are modified and simple rules and regulations for filing a complaint and seeking reliefs thereof. 

Under the previous i.e. the 1986 Act, the provisions related to the NCDRC were different and under the new Act i.e. the 2019 Act are different. The following are the pertinent Sections of the 2019 Act which are related to the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission:

Establishment of NCDRC

The provisions related to the establishment of NCDRC are dealt under Section 53 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. Under Sub-section 1 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, the central government has the power to establish a National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, which is known as the National Commission, by issuing a notification. As per sub-section 2 of the act, the National Commission generally works in the NCR region but it can function at other places as notified by the Central Government in the Official Gazette after consulting with the National Commission. It is also provided that the Central Government can set up regional branches of the National Commission if it is required. 

Composition of the commission and Qualification of its members

According to Section 54 of the 2019 Act, the National Commission shall consist of a President and such number of other members as prescribed by the Commission. The number of such other members shall not be less than four. 

Under Section 55 (1) of the 2019 Act, the Central Government has the power to make rules for qualifications, appointment, tenure of office, salaries and allowances, resignation, removal and other terms and conditions of service of the President and other members of the National Commission. Further, it is provided under this section that though the Central Government has to decide the tenure of the President and other members of the National Commission but such decided tenure shall not exceed five years from the date of joining the office and they shall be qualified for re-appointment. It is also provided that the Central Government has the power to fix the age of the President and other members of the National Commission but such age shall not exceed the age of seventy years, in case of the President and sixty-seven years of age in case of other members. Section 55 (2) provides that the decided salary and allowances and other terms of conditions of the President and other members shall not be varied to their disadvantage after their appointment. 

Under Section 57, the Central Government has the power to appoint such a number of officers and other employees for assisting the National Commission in discharging its functions, after consulting with the President of the National Commission. The President of the National Commission is authorised to keep a check on the working of such officers and employees. The salary and allowances and terms and conditions of such officers and employees will be decided by the Central Government. 

Jurisdiction

Section 58 of the 2019 Act provides for the jurisdiction of the National Commission. According to sub-section 1 of this Section, the National Commission shall have the jurisdiction in the following matters:

  1. To entertain the complaints where the price paid for the value or goods or services rendered exceeds the value of rupees ten crores. The National Commission can also entertain complaints of such other value when the Central Government feels so.
  2. To entertain the complaints against the unfair contracts where the price paid for the value or goods or services rendered exceeds the value of rupees ten crores.
  3. To entertain the appeals against the order of any State Commission and the Central Authority.

Under this Section, the National Commission is vested with the power to call the records and pass the orders in any consumer dispute pending before any State Commission or when the decision has passed by the State Commission but the National Commission finds that such State Commission has exercised the jurisdiction for which it is not authorised, or it has failed to exercise its jurisdiction, or it has acted illegally while exercising its jurisdiction. 

Section 58(2) of the act has authorised the President to constitute the Benches for exercising the jurisdiction of the National Commission with any numbers of members. But the Bench should be presided over by the senior-most member of the bench.  

According to Section 58(3), when the members of the bench have different opinions on any point then such issues should be decided by the majority if there is any and if the members are equally divided then each member should state on which point they differ and make a reference to the President. The president can either hear such points or can refer the case to other members and after this, the issue should be decided by the majority of all members including the first members who heard the case. It is also provided that the President and other members have to give their opinion on the referred points within two months from the date of such reference. 

The functioning of the commission

The provisions regarding the functioning of the National Commission are contained under Section 59 of the 2019 Act. According to Section 59(1), the procedure relating to the filing of complaints is the same as that of the District Commission provided under Section, 36, 37, 38 and 39. However, the modifications can be made by the National Commission according to the needs felt by it. According to sub-section 2, the National Commission has also power to declare any contract null and void if it is unfair to the consumer. 

Other powers of the commission

The National Commission has the power under Section 60 to make a review in certain cases. According to it, the National Commission can make a review when there is an error in the order passed by it and when either on its own motion or application made by a complainant within thirty days of such order. As per Section 61, when an ex-parte order has been passed then the aggrieved party can make an application to set aside the order. Under Section 62, the National Commission has been authorized to transfer cases either on its own motion or on party’s request. The National Commission can transfer a case pending before a District Commission of one State to District Commission of another state, or a case pending before a State Commission to another State Commission, in the interest of the justice. 

The emergence of the COVID-19

The pandemic around the globe is known to all of us as COVID-19 also termed as coronavirus. It has shaken the very consciousness of human beings and brought a 360° change in the lives of the people. The first wave of Coronavirus disease started in 2019 in China and gradually spread around the world. The prevailing human lifestyle tossed within a flash and came to a standstill. The minor flu in a part of the world took the shape of a pandemic around the globe in no time. The busy roads turned silent, the hustle-bustle came to a standstill and the overcrowded markets closed within days. The scenario around us changed like never before leaving us with a handful of options to deal with the situation. This raises the necessity to do an overall socio-economic impact assessment as to how this pandemic is giving new shape to the world along with the challenges it is throwing.

Notices issued by NCDRC during the pandemic

The NCDRC has issued numerous notices during the pandemic of COVID-19. The main purpose of these notices was to prevent the spread of the virus by avoiding large gatherings as advised by the Public Health Experts. 

The first notice during the Coronavirus pandemic was issued on 16th March 2020. According to it, all the matters were adjourned till 15th of next month to avoid huge gatherings for restricting the spread of Covid-19. However, the matters requiring an urgent hearing will be listed before the bench and heard by the same. The notice issued by NCDRC also specified that which matters will fall under the category of matters requiring an urgent hearing. The following matters will be treated as matters requiring urgent hearing:

  • The matters in which an immediate stay of the execution proceedings or an order passed in such proceedings is sought and such an order cannot be deferred till the next date of hearing.
  • The matters in which stays of the arrest warrant or recovery certificate issued, or to be issued, or of the sentence passed by the Consumer forum is sought. 
  • If the listing officer is of the opinion that any other matter requires an urgent hearing. 

And if any matter requires the most urgent hearing then such will be listed before the Listing Officer and application of such matter will be attached by the affidavit of the applicant. To maintain social distancing only lawyers with one party were allowed to enter the courtrooms for the hearing of the most urgent matter. This note also specified the manner according to which the matters will be adjourned.

The second notice was issued on 20th March 2020 and according to it, the President of the NCDRC has constituted the benches for the hearing of the urgent matters from 23rd March 2020 to the 15th of next month. These constituted benches were provided with the authority to choose a date for pronouncing the judgement other than those specified in the notice. 

In the third notice of NCDRC, the President constituted the more benches for the hearing of urgent matters. The fourth notice regarding the prevention and control of COVID-19 came on 24th March 2020. According to it, after complying with the orders of the NCT of Delhi and orders passed by Supreme Court, the registry of NCDRC was closed till 3rd April 2020. However, the staff members were allowed to work from home. Later, an order was passed by the NCDRC according to which the period of closing of the registry was extended till 15th April 2020 as there was a complete lockdown in the whole country. 

The Government of India extended the lockdown period 15th April 2020 to 3rd May 2020 and after complying with this order the NCDRC issued a notice according to which the registry was closed till 4th May 20202. However, staff members were allowed to work from home. Also, if there was an urgent matter, it may be mentioned before the residential office of the President of NCDRC.

Later, the NCDRC issued another notice in accordance with the order of the Central Government to allow Additional Selective Activities according to which 33% of the office has resumed the work of the office while following the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs

The NCDRC notified that from 15th June 2020, it will start the hearing of the matters via video conferencing. The litigants can register their complaints by submitting digitized copies of their file at the official email of the NCDRC. 

Functioning of the National Commission during the pandemic

The above-mentioned notices issued by the National Commission suggests that the commission was slower to adopt the changes introduced during the COVID-19 era. Till 15th June 2020, it has adjourned the matters and only urgent matters were heard by the President of NCDRC. However, many courts and tribunals started hearing the matters at the beginning of the lockdown period via video conferencing. The Supreme Court started hearing the matters via video conferencing from March 23 onwards and by doing so 618 benches have heard more 6994 cases (including review petitions). 

At the beginning of this COVID-19 pandemic, the NCDRC kept adjourning the matters till 15th June 2020. However, the matters requiring urgent hearing were allowed and heard by the benches. The litigants can request for their fresh or pending hearing of their matters via video conference by making a request to the registry by sending the digitized copy of their records at the official email of the NCDRC. The NCDRC notified that it will entertain all fresh matters for hearing via video conferencing and pending review petitions up to 2015. 

How the Coronavirus has affected the functioning of NCDRC

The NCDRC started hearing matters via video conferencing from 15th June 2020. Till this date, it kept adjourning the matters and only urgent matters were heard by the President at his residential office. But this lockdown period has been effectively used by the Commission as they passed more than 100 judgements in the cases where it has reserved its judgment and these judgments have been uploaded on NCDRC’s official website. As the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 came into force on 20th July 2020, the NCDRC started accepting all fresh complaints which will be governed by the provisions of the new Act. 

Conclusion 

The pandemic around the globe is known to all of us as COVID-19 also termed as coronavirus has shaken the very consciousness of human beings and has brought many changes. The COVID -19 will surely reshape our life. We are not sure when this pandemic will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does our life will look very different. The impact is so poignant that there is no industry which is not affected. The legal system of our country has also been affected badly by this pandemic including the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission. The NCDRC kept adjourning its matters at the beginning of this pandemic. Slowly but the NCDRC finally started registering fresh matters for the hearing via video conferencing from 15th June 2020. 

References 

  • https://www.academia.edu/40232392/UNDERSTANDING_THE_CONSUMER_PROTECTION_ACT_2019?email_work_card=view-paper
  • https://www.livelaw.in/columns/functioning-of-ncdrc-in-the-post-covid-era-159499
  • https://taxguru.in/corporate-law/consumer-protection-act-2019-overview.html#:~:text=Changes%20brought%20in%20by%20Consumer%20Protection%20Act%202019,the%20gaping%20gaps%20of%20the%20Act%20of%201986.

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