To safeguard the interests of consumers in India and to protect them against unfair practices, a national body under the Consumer Protection Act has been formed. This quasi-judicial body is the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC).
Before we talk about the basis on which this division has been made, let us first find out who qualifies as a consumer under the consumer protection law.
Who is a consumer?
A consumer is a person who buys any goods, irrespective of offline or online transactions, electronic means, teleshopping, direct selling, or multi-level marketing.
After changes were made in the consumer law under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, which came into effect on July 20, 2020, the district commission (earlier known as the district forum) can now entertain consumer complaints having a value of up to Rs 1 crore, as against the earlier limit of Rs 20 lakhs.
The state commission can entertain disputes where such value exceeds Rs 1 crore but remains within Rs 10 crores. The national commission can exercise jurisdiction, where such value exceeds Rs 10 crores. This means, a consumer can file complaints with the national commission, where the value involved is over Rs 10 crores.
However, the Supreme Court (SC), in March 2021, ruled that the national and state consumer commissions should decide old consumer complaints pending before them, in terms of the monetary jurisdiction fixed under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Only cases filed on or after July 20, 2020, should be dealt with according to the 2019 law, while the old cases will be decided in accordance with the 1986 Act, the apex court held.
Also note that while appeals from a district consumer court are entertained by the state commission, the appeals from the state commission are heard by the apex consumer panel. The final appeal lies before the Supreme Court (SC).
This means that if a home buyer is not satisfied with the ruling of the district forum, he can move the state commission. Subsequently, he can move the national commission if he is unhappy with the verdict of the state commission, too. If he is not satisfied with the decision made by the national panel too, he has to move an appeal in the SC. In such cases, it is immaterial whether or not the buyer meets the monetary parameters set to approach the state or national commissions.
NCDRC judgments and homebuyers
The SC, in November 2020, said that homebuyers can approach the consumer forum to seek remedies, including refund and compensation from builders for the delay in handing over possession of homes, in spite of the enactment of the real estate law (RERA).
“The parliamentary intent is clear that a choice or discretion is given to the allottee, whether he wishes to initiate appropriate proceedings under the CP Act or file an application under the RERA Act,” the SC ruled.
A home buyer can also drag the builder to the consumer court over misleading advertisements as such an act is termed a criminal offense under the consumer protection law. If the developer is found guilty, he could be sentenced to imprisonment for up to two years, apart from a monetary penalty of up to Rs 10 lakhs. The penalty may extend to Rs 50 lakhs and imprisonment of up to five years, in case of subsequent offenses.
Why does the national consumer forum remain popular among homebuyers despite the RERA?
Even though home buyers are promised protection under the sector-specific RERA, they continue to approach the consumer commissions, because of the high rate of justice delivery. As of March 31, 2021, the NCDRC had disposed of a total of 1,16,572 or over 84% of the cases it had taken up since its inception. The rate of justice delivery is also quite good at the district and state-level forums.
NCDRC case status
A consumer-friendly quasi-judicial body that conducts summary proceedings to provide relief to aggrieved consumers within the specified timelines, the NCDRC allows home buyers to argue their own cases, too. The consumer does not need to involve a lawyer. Source: NCDRC portal
National consumer forum helpline
One can call on the toll-free numbers 1800114000 or 14404, to reach the national consumer forum on all days, between 9:30 am and 05:30 pm, except national holidays.