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Case Study: Consumer Forums cannot entertain cases pending at Civil Court

It is common sense. No sane individual would want two different sets of jury in two different courts to deliberate on the same case at the same time. Moreover, if one court is a higher civil authority and the other focuses solely on consumer issues, the latter cannot deliberate on a case that is pending with the former. However, some people, either in desperation for quicker relief or with some malicious intent, have tried going the wrong way – the legally unacceptable way – of filing a complaint with a consumer forum despite the same case being pending/heard in the civil court. In this article, we share some cases and the judgements thereof to clear all doubts that one may have with regard to this subject.

Dr Prem Lata, Consumer Awakening
Former Member, CDRF-Delhi

Jury’s Verdict

“Consumer complaint filed by complainants before district forum are not maintainable when civil suit for same relief has already been filed before civil court prior to filing of consumer complaint,” Justice VB Gupta, presiding member, had said while pronouncing his verdict in the matter of Damayanti Kantilal Shah, Kantilal Ghelabhai Shah versus Rashmi Grihnirman Ltd and Others.
In 2008, a revision petition was filed before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) against the 2007 order of Maharashtra State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, Mumbai. In this matter, a judgement was dictated by Justice KS Chaudhari, the then presiding member, and the same had been sent for approval of Dr BC Gupta, who was the member of the same forum and sent a dissenting judgement. Thereafter, the matter was placed before the president, NCDRC, under Section 20 (i) (iii) of the Consumer Protection Act for appropriate directions. The president referred the matter to Justice VB Gupta, member (3rd bench). Justice Gupta agreed with the statement of the presiding member Justice KS Chaudhari.

Case Background

The complainants had booked two flats in Thane with builder Rashmi Grihnirman Ltd. The builder executed an agreement of sale in 1999 and was supposed to give possession of the flats in 2001. However, the builder failed to keep his commitment as per the agreement and did not provide possession to the complainants and returned the paid amount instead. Alleging deficiency on the part of the builder, the complainants reached the district forum, demanding possession of the flats as well as interest on the paid amount along with compensation for delay. The builder, on the other hand, submitted that the district forum had no territorial jurisdiction because the complainants had already filed a civil suit.
The forum heard both parties, admitted the complaint, and directed the builder to hand over possession of the respective flats along with the applicable interest, compensation and legal costs.

The builder did not oblige and filed an appeal before the State Commission of Maharashtra. The latter set aside the order of the district forum. Hence, a revision appeal reached the NCDRC, where it was thoroughly deliberated upon by the two-member bench. Justice BC Gupta maintained that although the State Commission had set aside the order of the district forum on the right grounds that the matter was already being heard in the civil court, they in the process have been left remediless by virtue of the impugned order. Consequently, the alleged act of omission or commission on the part of builder has been left without judicial scrutiny.

Justice Gupta also made a reference to Section 3 of Consumer Protection Act which provides an alternative remedy to consumers to get their rights enforced through the mechanism of consumer fora. The Supreme Court, in their judgement in Secretary, Thirumurugan Co-operative Agricultural Credit Society versus M Lalith in 2004, had taken the view that the better provisions need to be interpreted broadly, positively and purposefully to give a meaning to additional/extended jurisdiction, particularly when Section 3 seeks to provide remedy under the Act, in addition to other remedies provided under other Acts.

Earlier in 2003, in State of Karnataka versus Vishwabharathi Housing Building Co-operative Society, the apex court had held that the Consumer Protection Act supplemented and not supplanted the jurisdiction of the civil courts or other statutory authorities.

The Judges Concluded

Despite the above-mentioned arguments, Justice VB Gupta agreed with the findings of the State Commission and gave the following reasons for the same:

  1. “We reiterate that when two-three authorities are available to any person to file judicial proceeding for the redressal of his grievance, propriety demands that he has to choose one and pursue the remedy to the hilt or to the logical end, but he cannot be permitted to file civil suit in the Civil Court and for the same relief file consumer complaint in the District Consumer Forum. This is nothing but a blatant misuse of provisions of Consumer Protection Act, 1986, and the Code of Civil Procedure.”
  2. “The Consumer Forum is in addition to the jurisdiction of other authorities, particularly Civil Court functioning in the State of Maharashtra or for that matter all over India. But once party chooses to approach Civil Court for the same relief, he cannot be permitted to file consumer complaint pending the civil suit he has already filed for the same reliefs. Complainants Kantilal Shah and Damayanti K Shah having already approached Civil Court in the year 2002 were not permitted in law to file consumer complaints in the year 2003 for the same reliefs, which they had claimed by filing civil suits in the Court of Civil Judge, Senior Division, Thane.”
  3. “Perusal of the complaints reveals that complainants have not disclosed in their complaint that civil suit for the same relief had already been filed before Civil Court. The prayer made by the complainant in the civil suit and before the Consumer Forum is identical. It is clearly borne out from record that the complainants/petitioners filed civil suits before a Civil Court apprehending that the opposing parties were contemplating selling the flats in question to a third party. The Civil Court granted an ad-interim injunction in favour of the petitioners/complainants vide their order dated 24.5.2002 itself, which made consumers not entitled to opt for any other remedy available in law. Also, as District Forum allowed complaints in September 2003 and after institution of appeals by opposite party, complainant withdrew civil suits on 29.3.2004 which was filed before institution of complaint before District Forum. Hence it can be concluded that complainants had not gone to the district forum with clean hands.”

More References

In the matter of Special Machines, Karnal, versus Punjab National Bank in 1919, the National Commission had held that “when the subject matter of a complaint was sub-judice before a Civil Court, the Commission could not interfere.” A similar view had been presented in 1995 by the Tamil Nadu State Commission in Lilly Chaoyin versus Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation.

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