In 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:
“…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 the civilized 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 Islamabad Consumer Protection Act in 1995. In 1997, then NWFP [now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] 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 under these laws. 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 system. The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then 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, fifteen more cases were registered, out of which three stood decided – two in favour of the consumers concerned. Of the remaining fourteen 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.
Daily Times reported on 17 July 2007 that the Lahore District Consumer Court Judge had directed a home appliances company to pay Rs 52,000 damages to a customer for giving him a defective air conditioner (AC). The court issued this order on behest of the complainant who had filed a suit under the Punjab Consumer Protection Act 2005 against the appliances company (respondent). He submitted that he had purchased their split AC from an electronics shop in Abid Market, which was installed in his house by the respondent’s authorised installer. He said the AC was defective when he had bought it and the company’s technicians had repaired it on his complaint. He said the AC never worked properly and the respondent refused to replace it or refund its price. The complainant claimed Rs 500,000 compensation for mental torture. The respondent did not appear in court despite repeated summons therefore a ruling in favour of the consumer was given along with an order to pay him Rs. 25,500, the price of the AC, Rs 1,000 installation charges, Rs 20,000 damages and Rs 5,500 lawyer’s fee.
According to another report on 1 October 2007, the Lahore Consumer Court (LCC) Judge, taking action on the complaints of the district coordination officer, imposed a fine of Rs. 20,000 each on two ice cream companies, both located in Lahore, for not manufacturing ice cream according to the specifications mentioned on their products’ packing. The court also asked them to fix the problem and get their specifications/formulae patented within a month.
Despite the fact that these are very promising developments in Punjab (if not the whole of Pakistan), there remains a lot to be done. Among the aspects that merit attention are proper enforcement in the absence of which, enactments remain merely pieces of legal literature; unethical practices in the business and professional sectors might open floodgates of cases that could stifle commercial courts; consumers are yet unaware about their rights because of which not many people are willing to challenge manufacturers on sale of defective products or service providers on faulty performance of work and lack of quality control that can culminate in gradual decline in quality of products.
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.. Although some lawyers are actively speaking in the media about the efficacy of this law but a more focused campaign all over Pakistan needs to be undertaken to highlight the importance of consumer protection and to educate the public with respect to their rights and obligations of manufacturers as well as service providers. Due to restrictions on legal advisors with respect to advertising their professional services, teams of consumer protection experts should collaborate with members of the civil society to apprise consumers about their entitlements in the event of purchasing unsatisfactory products.
Last but not the least, 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. While canvassing for votes, the public is allured by fancy claims of turning around its destiny and introducing heavenly facilities but once in office, these promises are conveniently forgotten leaving the voters to fend for themselves without any support from the elected.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)