Consumer fora can initiate ‘contempt of court’ as well

Subject: Allahabad high court rules that consumer forums can also initiate contempt proceedings.

Backdrop: There are several rulings that consumer fora are not courts, but are quasi judicial tribunals for redressal of grievances. The Consumer Protection Act provides for its own hierarchy of appeals. Administrative control is exercised by the National Commission over the State Commissions, which in turn oversee the functioning of the District Forums under them. Because of this, it is believed that the Contempt of Courts Act is not applicable to the consumer fora.

Case Study: The Muzaffarnagar District Consumer Forum had lodged a complaint with the Allahabad HC that Advocate Anil Kumar Jindal had committed contempt of the Forum. The Allahabad HC then initiated proceedings against the advocate for criminal contempt. Jindal objected, claiming that the proceedings were non-maintainable. His argument was that Section 10 of the Contempt of Courts Act empowers the HC to punish a person for contempt of a court subordinate to it. He contended that the District Consumer Forum is neither a court nor is it subordinate to the HC.

The Additional Government Advocate, however, argued that the contempt proceedings are maintainable as the consumer forum has all the trappings of a court and is subordinate to the HC.

To decide the legal controversy, the HC analyzed the law and its interpretation. The word “court” is not defined under the Act and its meaning would have to be culled out on the basis of various pronouncements by the SC.

In the case of Virendra Kumar Satyawadi v/s State of Punjab, an SC bench considered the characteristics of a court. It held that a court has a duty to decide disputes in a judicial manner and declare the rights of parties in a definitive judgment. Judicial adjudication requires the parties to be heard in support of their claims and to produce evidence. The dispute has to be decided in accordance with law by considering the evidence. An authority or a tribunal would be considered a court only if it fulfils all these attributes.

Going by this definition, even a Returning Officer deciding on the validity of the nomination papers under the Representation of People Act is considered to be a court. Similarly, even an Assistant Registrar under the Cooperative Societies Act is considered to be a court under the Contempt of Courts Act.

The Consumer Protection Act vests the redressal agencies with the power to decide consumer disputes following a summary procedure. Disputes are decided, just like a court. The term “court” has to be interpreted in its generic sense. Whether the consumer forum is actually a court or not is immaterial. What is relevant is that it exercises judicial power akin to a court. Hence, the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act would be applicable.

The next question was whether the consumer fora could be considered subordinate to the HC. Article 227 of the Constitution of India provides the HC with the power of superintendence over all the courts and tribunals within its territorial jurisdiction, except those constituted under any law relating to the Armed Forces.

The SC, in S.K. Sarkar v/s Vinay Chandra, had observed that the term “subordinate court” is wide enough to include all courts which are judicially subordinate to the HC, even though administrative control over them may not vest in the HC. In view of this, an Administrative Judge has been assigned under the Allahabad HC Rules, to review judicial work of subordinate courts, tribunals, district consumer forums and other special courts.

The HC accordingly held that the consumer forum was subordinate to it.

Thus, over ruling Advocate Jindal’s legal objections, the HC held that it could proceed against him for committing criminal contempt. The proceedings will now consider factually whether contempt has been committed. [Judgement of the Allahabad HC dated 10.09.2012 delivered by Justice Ashok Pal Singh for the Bench comprising of Justice Dharnidhar Jha and himself in Contempt Application (Criminal) No. 3 of 2012 in the case of Anil Kumar Jindal & Ors.].

Impact: Those who misbehave in the consumer forum thinking that it is powerless to take action for contempt, will now have to exercise self-restraint.