In the Donoghue v Stevenson (1932) 562 (HL), a famous British case decided in the House of Lords, Lord Atkin established that ‘duty of care’ should be displayed by all those who were engaged in an activity that directly affected other human beings. He expressively observed: consumers
“…a manufacturer of products, which he sells in such a form as to show that he intends them to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him with no reasonable possibility of intermediate examination, and with knowledge that the absence of reasonable care in the preparation or putting up of products will result in an injury to the consumer’s life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care.”
Consumer protection law or consumer law is part of public law that regulates relationships between individual consumers and the businesses that sell goods and services to them. Consumer protection covers a wide range of topics, including but not necessarily limited to product liability, privacy rights, unfair business practices, fraud, misrepresentation, and other consumer/business interactions.
Such laws deal with credit repair, debt repair, product safety, service contracts, bill collector regulation, pricing, utility turnoffs, consolidation, personal loans that may lead to bankruptcy and much more. All over the world, especially in developed countries, the regulatory bodies, with the active cooperation and participation of citizens, lay great emphasis on the protection of consumers’ rights.
In Pakistan, according to the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (website www.crcp.org.pk), it took the government about 12 years to put in place a legislative framework for protection of consumer rights. The first step was the enactment of the Islamabad Consumer Protection Act in 1995. In 1997, the then NWFP [now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)] enacted a similar Consumer Protection law. These two laws, however, remained dormant because neither the rules of procedure were framed nor any Consumer Protection Council was established, as was required. Meanwhile, consumer protection organizations launched campaigns for enactment and implementation of consumer protection laws in all the provinces. Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP) developed a Model Consumer Protection Act in 2001 taking into account the best practices from many countries, and urged the Government to benefit from it while framing the laws. The following years were very crucial, as Balochistan and Punjab enacted their own Consumer Protection Acts in 2003 and 2005 in the context of devolution of the system. The Government of NWFP also amended the 1997 law to give regulatory powers to the District Coordination Officer (DCO). In Sindh, the Governor Sindh promulgated a Consumer Protection Ordinance in 2004, but it lapsed, as the provincial assembly could not enact it. The Ordinance was re-promulgated in February 2007. Until now, no significant progress has been made for implementation of these laws, except in Punjab.
In Punjab, the District Consumer Courts (DCC) started functioning in February 2007 gaining popularity with consumers by helping them to safeguard their rights with three cases decided in their favour and orders of compensation from the manufacturers whose products had been a source of trouble. The first case was filed on April 25, two months after inception of these courts. However, within the next two and a half months, 15 more cases were registered, out of which three stood decided – two in favour of the consumers concerned.
Of the remaining 14 cases, six related to requests for replacement of products seeking damages against manufacturers and four merely sought damages from manufacturers for making them suffer due to their product’s malfunction. One case was filed on the complaint of the district coordination officer as a result of the motion in Punjab Assembly against conversion of computer monitors into TV sets, which stated that the converted TV sets were harmful for the eyes and therefore the practice should be stopped.
The first case registered in the DCC sought damages and replacement of substandard car tyres. The second case filed on May 10 pleaded for replacement of a cooking range along with damages. The case was decided in favour of the consumer and the respondent had to pay Rs 12,500, the price of the cooking range and a Rs 10,000 fine. Another case that was decided sought replacement of a refrigerator and Rs 50,000 in damages but the judge ordered the manufacturing company to replace the product and pay Rs 10,000 in damages. The shop from where the appliance was purchased was also required to pay the consumer Rs 10,000.
There are very promising developments in Punjab followed by KP, yet there still remains a lot to be done. The following merit attention of all concerned:
* Enactments without proper implementation remain pieces of legal literature only.
* Lack of ethics in the business and professional sectors will give rise to a whirlwind of cases, once consumers become aware about their rights.
* There is no effective quality control in the manufacturing sector which is why, initially the products are of a high quality but the moment they capture a large-scale market, the quality nose dives. Suzuki motors would be an interesting case study.
* There is a general environment of learned helplessness and that is the main reason why most of the people verbally complain a lot about unprofessional treatment meted out to them by doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, technicians, service providers, airline officials, etc., but do not have the courage to file suitable cases against them.
* At present, the majority of our population is oblivious of the country’s laws. Judge, DCC Lahore observed that even though many complaints were being registered in the DCC situated at Poonch House near Chauburji, yet there was a need for educating people regarding consumer courts and their working. In other words, large-scale campaigns at the media level will have to be undertaken to create awareness among the people.
Last but not the least, in fact perhaps the most significant of all the factors is a glaring absence of political will on the part of our politicians or so-called representatives of the masses, to eradicate this malaise from our society and provide the people with a reasonable standard of living that they surely deserve.
(The writers, lawyers and partners in Huzaima, Ikram & Ijaz, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences)
(This news/article originally appeared in Business Recorder on August 23rd, 2019)