SC: For filing reply to consumer complaint, no extension beyond 15 days

A Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 4th March 2020, in the matter of New India Assurance Co. Ltd. v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Pvt. Ltd. pronounced that District Forum has no power to extend the time for filing the response to a consumer complaint beyond the period of 15 days and commencing point of limitation of 30 days u/s 13 of the Consumer Protection Act would be from the date of receipt of the notice accompanied with the complaint by the opposite party, and not mere receipt of the notice of the complaint.

Questions before the Hon’ble Supreme Court

First Question: Whether Section 13(2) (a) of the Consumer Protection Act, which provides for the respondent/opposite party filing its response to the complaint within 30 days or such extended period, not exceeding 15 days, should be read as mandatory or directory; i.e., whether the District Forum has power to extend the time for filing the response beyond the period of 15 days, in addition to 30 days.

Second Question: Whether the limitation under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act for filing the response by the opposite party to the complaint would commence from the date of receipt of the notice of the complaint by the opposite party, or the receipt of notice accompanied by a copy of the complaint.

Court’s Observations

…….Qua first question

The Consumer Protection Act has been enacted to provide for expeditious disposal of consumer disputes and that, it is for the protection and benefit of the consumer. (Para 6)

 The intention of the legislature seems to be very clear that the opposite party would get the time of 30 days, and in addition another 15 days at the discretion of the Forum to file its response. No further discretion of granting time beyond 45 days is intended under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.(Para 13)

The question of natural justice is dealt with by the legislature in sub­Section (3) of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act. The legislature was conscious that the complaint would result in being decided ex parte, or without the response of the opposite party, if not filed within such time as provided under the Consumer Protection Act, and in such a case, the opposite party will not be allowed to take the plea that he was not given sufficient time or that principles of natural justice were not complied with. Any other interpretation would defeat the very purpose of sub­Section (3) of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act. (Para 13)

The maximum period of 45 days, as provided under the Consumer Protection Act, would not mean that the complainant has a right to always avail such maximum period of 45 days to file its response. (Para 14)

The legislature in its wisdom has provided for filing of complaint or appeals beyond the period specified under the relevant provisions of the Act and Regulations, if there is sufficient cause given by the party, which has to be to the satisfaction of the concerned authority. No such discretion has been provided for under Section 13(2)(a) of the Consumer Protection Act for filing a response to the complaint beyond the extended period of 45 days (30 days plus 15 days). Had the legislature not wanted to make such provision mandatory but only directory, the provision for further extension of the period for filing the response beyond 45 days would have been provided, as has been provided for in the cases of filing of complaint and appeals. (Para 17)

To carve out an exception in a specific provision of the statute is not within the jurisdiction of the Courts, and if it is so done, it would amount to legislating or inserting a provision into the statute, which is not permissible. (Para 17)

By specifically enacting a provision under sub­Section (3) of Section 13, with a specific clarification that violation of the principles of natural justice shall not be called in question where the procedure prescribed under sub­Sections (1) and (2) of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act has been followed or complied with, the intention of the legislature is clear that mere denial of further extension of time for filing the response (by the opposite party) would not amount to denial or violation of the principles of natural justice. This provision of Section 13(3) reinforces the time limit specified in Section 13(2)(a) of the Act. (Para 17)

Hardship cannot thus be a ground to interpret the provision so as to enlarge the time, where the statute provides for a specific time, which, has to be complied in letter and spirit. (Para 18)

Law prevails over equity, as equity can only supplement the law, and not supplant it. (Para 19)

Where the provision of the Act is clear and unambiguous, it has no scope for any interpretation on equitable ground. (Para 19)

It is true that ‘justice hurried is justice buried’. But in the same breath it is also said that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. (Para 20)

It is not that sufficient time to file a response to the complaint has been denied to the opposite party. It is just that discretion of extension of time beyond 15 days (after the 30 days period) has been curtailed and consequences for the same have been provided under Section 13(2)(b)(ii) of the Consumer Protection Act. It may be that in some cases the opposite party could face hardship because of such provision, yet for achieving the object of the Act, which is speedy and simple redressal of consumer disputes, hardship which may be caused to a party has to be ignored. (Para 20)

Order VIII Rule 1 read with Order VIII Rule 10  of CPC, prescribes that the maximum period of 120 days provided under Order VIII Rule 1 is actually not meant to be mandatory, but only directory. Order VIII Rule 10 mandates that where written statement is not filed within the time provided under Order VIII Rule 1 “the court shall pronounce the judgment against him, or make such order in relation to the suit as it thinks fit”. A harmonious construction of these provisions is clearly indicative of the fact that the discretion is left with the Court to grant time beyond the maximum period of 120 days, which may be in exceptional cases. (Para 21)

For commercial suits, time for filing written statement provided under Order VIII Rule 1 CPC is meant to be mandatory, but not so for ordinary civil suits. Similarly,, for cases under the Consumer Protection Act also, the time provided under Section 13(2)(a) of the Act has to be read as mandatory, and not directory. (Para 21)

Once consequences are provided for not filing the response to the complaint within the time specified, and it is further provided that proceedings complying with the procedure laid down under sub Section (1) and (2) of Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act shall not be called in question in any Court on the ground that the principles of natural justice have not been complied with, the intention of the legislature is absolutely clear that the provision of sub­-section 2(a) of Section 13 of the Act in specifying the time limit for filing the response to the complaint is mandatory, and not directory. (Para 21)

The intention of the legislature was, and has always been, for expeditious disposal of the complaints. By providing for extension of time for disposal of the cases filed, for reasons to be recorded, the legislature has provided for a discretion to the Forum that wherever necessary, the extension of the time can be provided for, and where such further extension is not to be granted [as in the case of Section 13(2)(a)], the legislature has consciously not provided for the same, so as to achieve the object of the Act. (Para 22)

It is true that in Clause 4 of the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Consumer Protection Act, the legislature provided that “quasi–judicial bodies will observe the principles of natural justice”, however, the same is to be observed generally, and not where the same is specifically excluded. (Para 28)

…….Qua second question

Sub­Sections (2)(a) and (2)(b) of Section13 of the Consumer Protection Act specify that it is the copy of the complaint which is to given to the opposite party directing him to give his version of the case within a period of 30 days or such extended period, not exceeding 15 days. As such, from the aforesaid provision itself, it is clear that it is the copy of the admitted complaint which is to be served, after which the period to file the response would commence. (Para 37)

Wherever limitation is provided, either for filing response/written statement or filing an appeal, it is the copy of the plaint or the order/award which is to be served on the party concerned after which alone would commence the period of limitation. (Para 39)

A conjoint reading of Clauses (a) and (b) of sub­ Section (2) of Section 13 would make the position absolutely clear that the commencing point of limitation of 30 days, under the aforesaid provisions, would be from the date of receipt of notice accompanied by a copy of the complaint, and not merely receipt of the notice, as the response has to be given, within the stipulated time, to the averments made in the complaint and unless a copy of the complaint is served on the opposite party, he would not be in a position to furnish its reply. Thus, mere service of notice, without service of the copy of the complaint, would not suffice and cannot be the commencing point of 30 days under the aforesaid Section of the Act. However, the objection of not having received a copy of the complaint along with the notice should be raised on the first date itself and not thereafter, otherwise if permitted to be raised at any point later would defeat the very purpose of the Act, which is to provide simple and speedy redressal of consumer disputes. (Para 40)

Conclusions

Answer to the first question is that the District Forum has no power to extend the time for filing the response to the complaint beyond the period of 15 days in addition to 30 days as is envisaged under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act; and the answer to the second question is that the commencing point of limitation of 30 days under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act would be from the date of receipt of the notice accompanied with the complaint by the opposite party, and not mere receipt of the notice of the complaint.

Copy of judgement: Judgement_04-Mar-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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