The Challenges of Consumer Law (World Consumer Day 15th March)
This 15th of March 2015, I got an opportunity to speak at an event to celebrate the work consumer day organized by the Punjab Consumer Protection Council (PCPC) whose biggest achievement is to organize this annual event. Amongst the participants were the Provincial Minister for Industries, Consumer Judges and Registrars of ten Districts as well as representatives of multinational companies. My comments were an amalgamation of experiences over a period of time, the crux of which is as follows.
The 15th of March every year is celebrated as the World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD), an annual occasion for celebration and solidarity within the international consumer movement. It all started in 1962 when President John F Kennedy of the United States first outlined the definition of Consumer Rights. The WCRD is an opportunity to promote the basic rights of all consumers, for demanding that those rights are respected and protected, and for protesting the market abuses and social injustices which undermine them. WCRD was first observed on 15 March 1983, and has since become an important occasion for mobilizing citizen action against market abuses.
In Pakistan, the Punjab Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (PCPA 2005) is a potent legislation in the Province of Punjab to check consumer violations. Punjab took the lead in this regard whereby there isn’t any other similar legislation in the entire country. Only Sindh enacted a consumer law through an ordinance which never achieved the provincial parliament’s ascent.
The prime areas which PCPA 2005 caters to are defective services and defective products. This means that a number of consumer products from edible item to the service providers are checked through this law. An example could be numerous products in super stores including eatables, washing materials, baking and cooking products which bear no manufacturing and expiry dates. In addition service providers including construction workers, doctors, engineers, masons, plumbers, even lawyers render defective services and they are not accounted for. The law was specifically drafted to cater to these challenges.
Over a period of ten years since its promulgation, the achievements are a mixed bag. The prime accomplishment was the creation of consumer courts in more than twelve districts of Punjab. The judges of the courts were called as presiding officer and were of the rank of a Session Judge. With very limited facilities and the court being placed in residential areas, the judges have done tremendous job in providing basic justice to the consumers. However there are several lacunas which need further attention.
Firstly, the law does not cater to perishable items. This means if consumers are in a situation where they have used or consumed perishable items like ice cream, food, tinned food, dairy products, confectionery items etc, there isn’t any mechanism through which the vendor can be taken to the consumer court instantaneously. The only way is to firstly preserve the item and then take it to an authorized laboratory for relevant tests – the costs of which are colossal. Then after having the results the consumer may hire a lawyer and proceed to the court. As per the law, after the conclusion of the trial, if successful the consumer can obtain the costs of the expenditure on litigation from the losing side. In this regard, general consumers who purchase items for a paltry amount are deterred from going through such a laborious exercise.
Such a problem could be dealt through the Punjab Consumer Protection Authority which is headed by the Deputy Coordinating Officer (DCO) of the relevant district as explained in the PCPA 2005. He has the power to fine up to PKR 50,000/- to any vendor or service provider for defective products and services respectively. Unfortunately, due to the excessive engagements of the DCO in other trivial matters on the instructions of the Chief Minister Punjab, such matters are always kept on the back burner.
Further, due to reasonable interest of public in the consumer courts, the work load in the courts has tremendously increased. On average a judge of the consumer court listens to more than 100 cases daily and to add to the misery rather being provided by additional staff and judges to ease the work load, the humble judges have been assigned other districts. For example very recently the Consumer Judge Lahore in addition to Lahore district has been assigned the Sheikupura and Nankana sb districts which make dispensation of justice impossible.
The challenges are immense and the solution must be imminent. The Superior Judiciary especially the Chief Justice Lahore High Court, Lahore should take cognizance of the such deficiencies in the system and apprise the rest of his fellow brothers and sisters to provide utmost support to the consumer courts and give regular directions to the Authority to take concrete steps to eradicate market abuses through regular check. In addition, further judges be appointed in the consumer courts of all the districts of Punjab to reduce the work load on the present judges. Lastly the Superior Judiciary must take complete ownership of the subordinate judiciary as to strengthen the spine of our judicial system.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.