Should Consumer Courts be Digitalized and Have Jurisdiction in Essential Services and Criminal Matters?

In Pakistan, consumers are among the most vulnerable groups, largely due to a lack of awareness about their rights and the ineffective implementation of existing consumer protection laws. It is of utmost importance to address the plight of consumers who fall victim to unscrupulous sellers, manufacturers and dealers selling faulty goods and providing substandard services. Consumer protection laws are designed in this regard to:

  • promote fair competition;
  • ensure transparency in information dissemination;
  • enhance access to quality goods and services; and
  • establish regulations for swift and fair justice.

The safeguarding of consumer rights is integral to any educated and stable society, as consumers are the backbone of the economy. Even in Islam, emphasis is placed on fair dealing, fulfilling contractual obligations, avoiding misrepresentation in sales and maintaining ethical business practices. The concept of consumer protection encompasses various aspects, including:

  • product liability;
  • privacy rights;
  • prevention of unfair business practices;
  • prevention of fraud; and
  • addressing misrepresentation in consumer-business interactions.

The United Nations also recognized the significance of consumer protection by issuing guidelines on the matter in 1985.

Regrettably, Pakistani consumers have long been neglected, either intentionally or unintentionally, by both government and manufacturers, as existing laws have not been fully enforced. Consumer protection and consumer rights aim to shield buyers from fraudulent practices employed by sellers in selling goods and services. Additional regulations have also been imposed on businesses to disclose more details regarding their products, ensuring that consumers are well-informed and protected before making a purchase.

Under the Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014, if a seller fails to deliver the promised goods or services, the seller is held liable and must compensate the buyer accordingly. Advertising, considered a potent tool for influencing consumers, often falls short of providing objective information. Instead of informing consumers, advertisements frequently mislead, influencing consumer perceptions and neglecting crucial details for informed decision-making. Advertisers may manipulate consumers, shaping their understanding according to the intended narrative while overlooking essential realities necessary for a prudent shopping decision. Examples include deceptive advertising related to height increase or weight loss.

Instances of fraudulent advertisements, misleading information and the prevalence of hazardous products and faulty services have been rampant, often without any avenue for redress. As the global landscape evolves due to globalization, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and informed. Therefore, it is imperative to take concrete steps towards the enforcement of consumer protection laws, as a dormant law on the books is akin to a blunt knife.

The enactment of the Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014 was a significant move towards ensuring justice for consumers facing unfair trade practices in the province. However, a comprehensive analysis reveals certain limitations in its current form, highlighting the need for thoughtful amendments to strengthen consumer protections.

Recognizing consumers as the backbone of every market, the Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014:

  • includes provisions for consumer protection against the seller’s liability for defective products.
  • Section 4 stipulates that manufacturers are liable to consumers for damages caused by a defective product, while a product is deemed defective if there is a flaw in design or construction, inadequate warning, or failure to conform to an express warranty.
  • Additionally, Section 10 specifies that if the consumer has only suffered a loss of utility without any damages from the product, the manufacturer’s liability is limited to a return of consideration or a portion thereof, along with costs.

Although the Act, passed in 2015, primarily focuses on addressing issues related to defective products or faulty services, certain critical areas require attention, notably, the Consumer Court lacking jurisdiction over essential services such as:

  • drugs/medicines;
  • vegetables;
  • fruits;
  • oil/fuel;
  • electricity;
  • Sui gas;
  • CNG;
  • banking;
  • telecommunications;
  • insurance; and
  • medical negligence/malpractice.

To seek redress, aggrieved consumers have two options:

  1. File a complaint before the District Consumer Protection Council; or
  2. Initiate a case in the Consumer Court.

The Deputy Commissioner of the respective district serves as the chairperson of the District Consumer Protection Council. As per Rule 22 of the Sindh Consumer Protection Rules 2017 (SCPCR 2017), the legislators have entrusted the Deputy Commissioner with the responsibility of safeguarding the rights of consumers within the district. Rule 23 outlines the duties of the District Consumer Protection Council, emphasizing its role in addressing consumer grievances. Rule 23 is reproduced as under:

23. Functions of the District Councils

The District Council shall,

(i) recommend reform to the Authority through the Provincial Council for furthering the object and purposes of the Act and rules made there under;

(ii) create awareness among consumers against the marketing of products which are hazardous to life and property;

(iii) provide information and access to information regarding products and services available in the District to the consumer;

(iv) create awareness among public regarding access to products and services, and protection from any unfair, illegal or dangerous practices prevalent in the market;

(v) assist in the exchange of information, views and recommendations between manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and Government;

(vi) perform any other function as directed by the Government or the Council; and

(vii) assist the council in removing defective products and services from the market.

One of the paramount reasons for safeguarding consumers is the pervasive lack of information. The significant information gap between consumers and sellers hampers the consumers’ ability to make well-informed decisions. The rise in cumulative utilization has led to consumers facing an information gap when engaging in transactions involving the purchase of products or provision of services, which has necessitated the introduction of preventive measures to protect consumer rights.

Due to their limited knowledge, experience and bargaining power, consumers pursuing their own interests are more susceptible to deceptive practices, making it more likely for them to be misled and less likely to safeguard their benefits. In many cases, traders possess a greater understanding of the intricacies and characteristics of the products they sell, as compared to consumers. Even well-informed consumers can encounter difficulties in choosing goods or services, such as purchasing counterfeit drugs that are ineffective or harmful for life. When it comes to services, difficulties may arise in evaluating the offerings of different service providers, such as tour guides or dress stitching.

The responsibility of protecting consumers lies with the government of a country. In countries like Pakistan, traders and service providers, whether public or private, often wield unrestrained powers, leaving consumers at their mercy. The low literacy rate in Pakistan exposes inexperienced and uninformed consumers to the whims of service providers, retailers and producers. Unfortunately, those handling complaints often treat consumers unreasonably and spitefully. Ironically, the District Consumer Council in Pakistan fails to raise awareness about consumer rights in the district or engage in meetings with end-consumers to educate them about consumer issues. Consequently, many consumers remain unaware of their rights, making them susceptible to deception and fraud by manufacturers and service providers.

According to Section 29 of the Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014, no claim or complaint shall be entertained by the court unless the aggrieved consumer provides a 15-day prior notice to the respondent. While the legislation protects certain rights of respondents, many individuals complain that serving notice to the respondent results in harassment and threats if they proceed to file a complaint in the Consumer Court. Due to such circumstances and the lengthy and complex procedures involved in invoking the jurisdiction of the Consumer Protection Court, many aggrieved consumers hesitate to seek redress. Notably, the government itself can be a complainant under clause (d) (iii) of Section 2 of the Act. However, as per Rule 11 of the Sindh Consumer Protection Rules 2017 (SCPR 2017), only authorities, such as the Assistant Director of the Supply and Prices Department, can file claims or complaints on behalf of the public. Unfortunately, many Assistant Directors are unaware of their powers and, even if informed, often lack the time to address such matters, resulting in people being deceived without proper attention to public issues.

The lack of a specific provision enabling the court to frame issues presents a procedural challenge within the framework of the Sindh Consumer Protection Act 2014. The Act‘s application of the Civil Procedure Code is circumscribed, lacking explicit authority for the Consumer Court to adopt essential provisions of the CPC. This limitation means that the CPC is not fully applicable, therefore, the Consumer Protection Court cannot exercise powers under Rules 10 and 7 of Order VII to return or reject a complaint unless found frivolous or vexatious after a full procedure, creating procedural bottlenecks. Unlike civil courts, there is neither the power to pass an order of interim or mandatory injunction nor any procedure to execute the orders passed by the Consumer Court, posing challenges in enforcement.

In contrast to Magisterial Courts, Consumer Protection Courts lack the authority to take suo motu action against violators of the Consumer Protection Act, which contributes to the majority of Presiding Officers of Consumer Protection Courts being conferred with criminal jurisdictions in their respective districts. The low initiation of complaints by consumers is due to the fear of respondents. The Act‘s penal provisions, designed to punish manufacturers for non-compliance, lack the necessary authority.

While the Sindh Consumer Protection Act 2014 represents a significant step towards safeguarding consumer rights in the province, it has notable limitations requiring immediate attention and enhancement. The Act‘s commendable focus on defective products and faulty services is hindered by the following critical issues such as jurisdiction, awareness and procedural challenges, which need to be addressed for comprehensive consumer protection:

  1. First, the Act‘s limited jurisdiction over vital services leaves consumers vulnerable in essential sectors such as healthcare, banking and telecommunications. Amendments should be considered to expand the Consumer Court’s authority, ensuring a more inclusive and effective protection mechanism.
  2. Secondly, the lack of proactive measures by the District Consumer Protection Council in creating awareness amongst consumers is a significant drawback. Efforts must be made to educate consumers about their rights and the mechanisms available for grievance redressal.
  3. Thirdly, the requirement of a 15-day prior notice to the respondent, as mandated by the Act, may deter aggrieved consumers from seeking justice due to harassment and threats. Streamlining this process and ensuring protection for consumers during this period is essential to encourage more individuals to approach the Consumer Court.

  4. Moreover, procedural challenges, such as the absence of specific provisions for framing issues and the limited applicability of the Civil Procedure Code, need to be rectified. The Consumer Court should be empowered with the necessary tools to efficiently handle complaints and enforce its orders.

  5. Furthermore, the Act’s inability to take suo motu action, coupled with the inadequacy of penal provisions, diminishes its effectiveness in deterring non-compliance. Granting the Consumer Court the authority to initiate action and administer criminal punishments will enhance its deterrent capabilities.

The Sindh Consumer Protection Act 2014 requires a thorough review and reform to effectively address its current limitations. Only through thoughtful enhancements and a commitment to robust implementation can the Act truly fulfill its purpose of providing comprehensive safeguards for consumers in Sindh. Consumer protection is crucial for fostering fair business practices, promoting informed decision-making and building trust between consumers and businesses in the dynamic global market.

Taking inspiration from the proactive measures initiated by the Government of Punjab in 2005 with the enactment of the Punjab Consumer Protection Act (PCPA), the Sindh government should contemplate similar initiatives to strengthen consumer rights and ensure fair trade practices. Drawing lessons from the experiences of other provinces, especially Punjab, can offer valuable insights into enhancing the Sindh Consumer Protection Act 2014.

To modernize and streamline the consumer complaint filing process, a vital amendment should be introduced to facilitate online submission of complaints. This approach not only aligns with the global trend of digitalization but also addresses concerns of consumers who may be hesitant to engage in the complaint process due to perceived complexities and formality associated with traditional court procedures.

Enabling online consumer complaint filing will significantly contribute to making the entire procedure more accessible and user-friendly. Consumers who are unwilling to navigate through lengthy formalities in physical courts can benefit from the convenience of remote access. This approach aligns with the broader goals of enhancing efficiency, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and encouraging more individuals to assert their consumer rights.

The introduction of an online platform for consumer complaints will not only expedite the resolution process but also contribute to the overall effectiveness of the Consumer Court system. Implementing this amendment will signify a commitment to adaptability and responsiveness to the evolving needs of consumers in the digital age. As the world progresses towards increased connectivity and technological advancements, incorporating such digital solutions is imperative for a robust and consumer-friendly legal framework.


References

United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection
https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditccplpmisc2016d1_en.pdf
The Sindh Consumer Protection Act, 2014
The Sindh Consumer Protection Rules 2017
The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Waseem Abbas

Author: Waseem Abbas

The writer is a Civil Judge and Judicial Magistrate, currently posted as a Judge of the Consumer Protection Court at District Shikarpur, Sindh.

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