2 Jun 2010

Violation of interim order of consumer forum punishable: High Court

Holding that the service provider can be punished even for violating interim orders of a consumer forum, the Bombay High Court in a recent decision has declared that a service provider is liable to punishment for having acted in breach of the restraining order passed by the State Consumer Forum. The High Court was dealing with the complaint against a telephone service provider whose phone was disconnected dispute the Consumer Forum having directed that during the pendency of the determination of the complaint no disconnection would be carried out. The service provider had argued that since the order violated was an interim order, no question arose of any punishment. The High Court, however, disagreed and held that the law was required to be interpreted otherwise. 

In this context, the High Court made the following observations;
21. Do interim orders of District Forum, State Commission or National Commission lose their finality in respect of that part of the proceedings if they are challenged and the challenge is not upheld and/or if no appeal is preferred. This will have to be interpreted in the context that such interim orders can also be executed. Once an interim order is passed it must be obeyed. When a party is given notice of the proceeding for hearing of the application for interim relief and the concerned forum an order disposing off those proceedings after hearing both the parties or exparte, if the Respondent had notice of the hearing and did not participate that part of the proceedings stands disposed of. Thus the expression interim order would be the final disposal of the interim proceedings before the forum. It is now settled law that interim orders once passed unless there be subsequent events cannot be varied during the pendency of the complaint or the main proceedings. To that extent there is any element of finality to such orders. Such interim orders passed during the pendency of the proceedings can be executed in terms of Section 25. Once these orders are capable of execution under Section 25(1) because there is a finality to them and if the object of Section 27 is to penalise a trader or a person against whom complaint is made for failure to comply with the order, then why should these orders which can be executed be excluded from the purview of Section 27 which provision no doubt is penal in character. If such orders can be enforced by execution then why cannot they be the subject matter of a complaint like the final order. Why must then the expression “any order” in Section 27 be classified into orders passed at an interim stage or orders passed at final stage. Was it the intent of the Legislature to exclude a class of orders from the expression ‘any order’. Wherever the legislature prescribes a duty and a penalty for a breach of it, it must be assumed that the duty is prescribed in the interest of the community or some part of it and the penalty is prescribed as a sanction for its performance. In such matters a rational approach and not a technical approach is the mandate of law. In matters pertaining to consumer protection the law must be interpreted in favour of the consumer. Section 27 only provides what Order 39 Rule 2A provides under the C.P.C., with a provision for imprisonment if ultimately the offence is proved. No doubt the sentence of imprisonment may be harsh, but that the respondent must suffer for failure to comply with the orders. As the Supreme Court in Viswabharti House Building Coop. Society (supra) has noted that Section 27 is an additional power on the forums to execute its orders. 
In the matter of interpreting the provisions of Section 14(2A) of the Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952, Chandrachud C.J., said “considering the object and purpose of this provisions which is to ensure the welfare of workers, we find it impossible to hold that the offence is not of a continuing nature” See Bhagirath Kanoria vs. State of M.P. (1984) 4 SCC 222. All such orders are equally binding irrespective of the point of time or at a stage of the proceedings when they are made. The Legislature if that be its intention could have while conferring power to grant interim relief could have excluded such ‘interim order’ from the expression ‘any order’.

22. Does the Rule of construction of statues, exclude such interpretation. Penal and criminal statutes, statutes in derogation of common rights and of the common law, statutory grants, statutes authorizing summary proceedings, and most tax laws are among the enactments usually subject to strict construction. On the other hand, there are many statutes which will be liberally construed. Where this is the case, the meaning of the statute may be extended to matters which come within the spirit or reason of the law or within the evils which the law seeks to suppress or correct, although, of course, the statute can under no circumstances be given a meaning inconsistent with, or contrary to the language used by the legislators. But a liberal construction does not require that words be accorded a forced, strained, or unnatural meaning, or warrant an extension of the statute to the suppression of supposed evils or the effectuation of conjectural objects and purposes not referred nor indicated in any of the terms used. Whether a statute will be given a liberal or a strict construction will depend upon whether the court thinks a given “determinate” should be included or excluded from the statute’s operation, it is a factor of great importance. (See In Crawford’s Statutory Construction, Interpretation of laws 1998 Edition).

23. So viewed, in our opinion, merely because the expression “any order” under Section 27 specifically does not use the expression interim order, is irrelevant. Section 27 is an additional remedy to ensure that orders passed are not breached and the party who fails to obey the order has to suffer the penal consequences. It is in the nature of deterrence, to ensure that orders, interim or final are complied and that the consumer is entitled to specific relief. As the Supreme Court has observed in Vishwabarathi House Building Coop. Society (supra), Section 27 is another mode of execution of orders. It is no doubt true that the consequences being penal, the provisions must be strictly construed. At the same time Courts normally consider the literal interpretation of the language of the provisions unless that interpretation results in an absurdity or does not reflect the intent of the Legislature. If the object is to penalise for failure to comply with any order, we find no absurdity in applying the literal rule of construction. In Babaji Kondaji Garad vs. Nasik Merchants Coop. Bank Ltd. & Ors., (1984) 2 SCC 50:“
10. Before going in search of any external aids of construction, let us look at the language employed by the Legislature because no canon of construction can be said to be more firmly established than this that the Legislature uses appropriate language to manifest its intention.”
The law pertaining to Consumer Protection Act, 1986 as its object and reasons clause would show is meant for better protection of the interest of the consumers and as the statement of objects and reasons to the Amendment Act 2002 would show, that it is meant to provide a simple, inexpensive and speedy justice to the consumers, on complaints against defective goods, deficiency in service and unfair trade practice or the restrictive trade practice and conferring power of the Judicial Magistrate, First Class on the Consumer Dispute Redressal Agencies with a view to try the offences under the Act. It is a benevolent piece of legislation providing for an alternative system of consumer justice by a summary trial, See Charan Singh v. Healing Touch Hospital (2000) 7 SCC 668.

24. In our opinion, therefore, to give greater protection to the consumer and to make execution of orders more effective and less expensive which is the object of the Act and to provide for speedy justice, we see no reason as to why the provisions contained in Section 27 should be restricted only to final orders. We must also note that earlier there was power to impose lesser punishment in terms of the proviso to Section 27 as it then stood. This proviso was omitted by Act 62 of 2002. The object, therefore, is to make the Act more stringent and leave no discretion for imposing lesser punishment than the minimum what is prescribed under Section 27. Considering this object, in our opinion, the compliance by traders and other persons would be more effective if we read the benevolent legislation in such a manner so as to avoid delay, making it less burdensome on the consumer and give him speedy redressal of justice in a complaint which a forum finds to be just. 

25. We, therefore, have no hesitation to hold that Section 27 which uses the expression ‘any order’ must include within its sweep not only final orders, but all orders including interim orders which are also capable of execution under Section 25. Section 27 makes no distinction between order and final order, it involves any order. In our opinion, therefore, we cannot agree with the view expressed either by the Consumer Forum or by the State Commission.

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