Consumer fora cannot decide onpower theft assessment disputes

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Consumer protection

Disputes regarding assessment for electricity theft not maintainable under Consumer Protection Act (CPA) as there is no deficiency in service or unfair trade practice.

Background: Consumer fora used to entertain disputes regarding assessed bills for electricity theft. But, a couple of years ago, the SC restrained the fora from finally deciding such complaints till its ruling on the maintainability of such disputes. In its July 1 judgment, delivered by Justice Sudhansu Mukhopadhaya for a bench headed by Justice G S Singhvi, the SC held that such disputes cannot be adjudicated by the consumer fora. (UP Power Corporation Ltd & Ors v/s Anis Ahmad—Civil Appeal Nos 5467 to 5475 of 2012.) The remedy would lie before the special courts constituted under the Indian Electricity Act. The consumer fora can only deal with complaints pertaining to deficiency in service or unfair trade practice. What are the implications of this judgment for the consumer?

Case Study: Anis Ahmad and other consumers of UP Power Corporation had filed complaints before the district forum challenging the assessed bill raised against them for theft of electricity. The corporation challenged the maintainability of such complaints before the fora. The Moradabad District Forum, Uttar Pradesh State Commission and the National Commission held the complaints to be maintainable. The corporation moved the SC.

The SC observed that to file a complaint under the CPA, a person must be a consumer and there must be an allegation that the goods are defective, or there is a deficiency in service, or that unfair trade practice or restrictive trade practice has been adopted, or that the goods or services are hazardous or that the charge is in excess of the price declared or fixed by law.

In the case before the SC, Ahmad and others, who had filed the consumer complaints, had industrial connections meant for commercial purpose. Since the complaints in respect of commercial purposes were excluded under the CPA, the SC ruled that the complaints were not maintainable before the consumer fora. Besides, none of the persons had alleged any deficiency in service or unfair trade practice, but had merely disputed the final order of assessment in respect of unauthorized use or theft of electricity.

The SC also observed that the provisional assessment is subject to a final assessment by the assessing officer after giving notice to the person who is supposed to have indulged in unauthorized use or theft of electricity. The Electricity Act also provide for an appellate authority to challenge the final assessment. The court ruled that the since the assessing officer is a public servant and his assessment is a quasi-judicial decision, any dispute regarding the assessment would not constitute a consumer dispute.

Under the Electricity Act, illegal use and electricity theft attracts a civil consequence of levying a charge at twice the applicable rate, and a criminal prosecution where the offender can be punished with imprisonment or fine or both. Special courts have also been constituted under the Electricity Act for speedy adjudication of such disputes.

The SC said even though the CPA offers an additional remedy, and the Electricity Act provides that in the event of a conflict between the two Acts, the CPA will prevail, it would not vest the forum with the jurisdiction to decide disputes regarding assessment for unauthorized use or electricity theft. It held that both the Acts run parallel. The fora can decide an electricity dispute only if it relates to deficiency in service, unfair trade practice or overcharging.

Conclusion: The SC judgment does not debar consumer fora from adjudicating complaints regarding supply of electricity, so long as the dispute fits within the four corners of the CPA. In short, if a consumer makes out a case of deficiency in service, over-charging, unfair trade practice or restrictive trade practice, consumer fora can adjudicate the dispute.

Background: Consumer fora used to entertain disputes regarding assessed bills for electricity theft. But, a couple of years ago, the SC restrained the fora from finally deciding such complaints till its ruling on the maintainability of such disputes. In its July 1 judgment, delivered by Justice Sudhansu Mukhopadhaya for a bench headed by Justice G S Singhvi, the SC held that such disputes cannot be adjudicated by the consumer fora. (UP Power Corporation Ltd & Ors v/s Anis Ahmad Civil Appeal Nos 5467 to 5475 of 2012.) The remedy would lie before the special courts constituted under the Indian Electricity Act. The consumer fora can only deal with complaints pertaining to deficiency in service or unfair trade practice. What are the implications of this judgment for the consumer?