Many of us have become insensitive to excesses by large corporations against us and do not know about the rights we enjoy as citizens and consumers. Even if we are aware of our rights, we do not trust the system and refrain from seeking any relief. The institutions set up to address the grievances of ordinary citizens are there but the perception that they will do more harm than good to the complainants keep them away from following this discourse.
The rights of consumers are by far the most protected rights in the civilised world and the adage “consumer is the king” defines the space in which businesses operate. Ideally this should also have been the case in Pakistan but here consumers are cheated with impunity. Almost everybody needs a referral before going to buy a product or avail a service to minimise the chances of after-sale brawls and disputes.
These were the issues that justified the establishment of consumer courts back in 2007. Backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under its Access to Justice Programme (AJP), these courts were to be strengthened and given full authority to redress consumers’ complaints. They were supposed to have separate buildings, staff, equipment, vehicles and all other modern facilities required for proper functioning of a court.
However, seven years down the road, the situation appears to be opposite to that vision. A visit to the District Consumer Court Lahore makes one realise that its offices lack even the basic amenities and its functioning depends a lot on the markets in close vicinity.
Located in a rented house in a Riwaz Garden neighbourhood, the court does not even have a functional photocopying machine and the staff and the visitors have to visit the nearby markets for this purpose. The machine lying there has been out of order for the last four years and cannot be repaired due to non-approval of funds.
Besides, there is no nazarat branch, copying branch, record room or judicial lockup where the arrested personnel could be kept. There are only 9 people on the staff, down from the 13 at the time when the court was established. The load has increased a lot but the staff has not. There are only two old-model computers, and only one car which is used by the respected judge. The auto-mechanic engaged by the office has warned that the engine of the car can cease to work any moment.
Despite all these issues, the court is providing relief to people and issuing landmark judgements, says Asif Nazir, registrar, consumer court, Lahore while talking to TNS. He is here since the court started to function and has worked with all the seven judges who have been posted here from time to time.
He says though the court lacks official patronisation, it has challenged mafias in the corporate world and has made them realise that the consumer has to be honoured and served properly. He says a couple of months ago the consumer court fined Rs 8.5 lakh to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) on complaint of a passenger who said PIA staff had stolen precious goods from his luggage. The complainant had provided a list of missing goods along with receipts.
Similarly, he says, last year the court had ordered Daewoo Bus Service to pay compensation to a passenger and tender a written apology to him for not taking him to his destination in time. The passenger Gull Ijaz had filed a damages suit against the company claiming the bus driver made unnecessary stops which caused unusual delay in reaching the destination and he missed a highly important meeting due to this.
Such are common occurrences but very few people know there is a remedy for this and bother to approach the court, he says. But one good thing, he says, is that court decisions serve as a deterrent and many business houses have started putting things in order. “When there was no fear they were least concerned about the consumers.” He calls for setting up of consumer desks in markets and increasing the number of courts in the city to facilitate more and more people. One court is not enough for a sprawling city of around 10 million people.
As per law the consumer court can be approached by a consumer who buys a product and avails a service against monetary consideration provided he has proof such as a receipt etc. It hears complaints again banks (if these are not related to loans), educational services, PTCL, land services (real estate), airlines, retailers, sellers etc.
But over the years its jurisdiction has been curtailed a bit, says a formal official of the Punjab industries department which is linked to the court. For example, he says SNGPL has a new law which limits consumer court’s jurisdiction over it, complaints against Lesco cannot be heard as a Lahore high Court (LHC) stay mentions it and the new medical services regulations give this role to Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC).
The official says there is a feeling that Mian Shahbaz Sharif’s government is against the concept of consumer courts and those who claim this have two strong arguments. First, they say these courts are not liked as they were established during the government of Pervez Elahi and second these target businessmen, traders and retailers who form the real support base of PML-N. The former Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah has expressed these feelings at a function arranged by the Punjab industries department on World Consumer Day, a couple of years ago, he adds.
An interesting part of the argument is that there are consumers as well who make it a matter of ego to teach a lesson to arrogant and abusive sellers. Fawad is one such person who has filed a complaint for Rs 1 million damages against ChenOne for selling him defective trousers and misbehaving with him when he returned to get it exchanged. The trousers cost Rs 1500 only and he has spent a lot more than this amount in pursuing thecase. “I don’t worry about the amount. They abused me and hurt my self respect and I will avenge this,” he says.
Similarly, Col (retd) Arshad, a resident of DHA Lahore, approached the consumer court against a fumigation service provider and complained that the spray used was ineffective. The service provider had to provide spray services again free of cost and asked to return the amount he had received from the client.
Asad Jamal, a lawyer with significant experience of consumer rights’ litigation, says these courts are providing relief to people but the increasing pendency does discourage complainants. He says it took him more than four years to get a case decided as the opponent lawyer kept on filing frivolous complaints and seeking repeated adjournments. The frequent transfers of judges have also resulted in delays, he adds. The consumer court, he says, should provide speedy justice as lengthy procedures discourage the complainants who may stop pursuing the cases.
Asif Nazir agrees the lawyers do get discouraged easily and one reason is that the disputed amounts are some time too little. That is why, he says, the court encourages complainants to apply and contest themselves without the help of lawyers. He clears this misconception saying, “They are not at a disadvantage if they are not represented by lawyers.”