The Consumer Protection Act, 2019, which came into force recently, is a welcome improvement on the 1986 law. It has strengthened a number of provisions of the old law, which had for the first time recognised consumers’ needs and interests as legally enforceable rights. There were loopholes in the old law and many of these have been plugged. More safeguards have been introduced. A number of issues which are relevant to consumers’ interests have emerged in the past three decades and they needed to be addressed. E-commerce did not exist in 1986 and so problems related to e-marketing, direct selling and other digital-age practices had to be taken care of. The media, which advertises goods and services, had not grown to the present stage. The new law has provisions which address the concerns and needs in these areas. The new law broadens the definition of ‘consumer’ and seeks to give them more power. One important provision is for setting up a Central Consumer Protection Authority to promote, protect and enforce the rights of consumers as a class. It will make interventions to protect consumers from unfair trade practices and can also initiate class action, including enforcing recall, refund and return of products. The law also seeks to revamp the process of administration and settlement of disputes, with strict penalties, including jail term for adulteration and misleading ads by firms. The dispute resolution process will be simplified, and the consumer will be able to file cases at a place near one’s home. It makes sellers liable for misleading advertisements and for faulty products or services and provides for early closure of cases. There is no provision for jail for celebrities for misleading advertisements, but they could be banned for endorsing products that do not live up to the claims made about them. Some provisions, including those relating to e-commerce and celebrity endorsements have yet to be notified.
The new law and the rules under it will hopefully create a better consumer protection regime. The introduction of class action suit as part of the Consumer Protection Act 2019 has been welcomed with most consumers saying it will make redressal for misleading advertisements, defective products and deficient services easier. Consumers believe that a class action suit mechanism (where a large number of consumers facing the same issue with a defective product come together) will be instrumental in getting companies to accept returns of defective products. These insights were revealed in a survey conducted by Local Circles, a community and social media platform. But there are challenges in the way of making the added benefits real for the consumer. Though many of the grievances and disputes that come before the courts can be settled in a few days, cases often drag on. Immediate relief is very important in all consumer complaints. The most important requirement is for the law to be effectively implemented. Weaknesses and shortcomings will arise in the course of implementation and they need to be addressed. Consumer protection is an evolving area and awareness is growing, and so the law will need changes on the move, rather than a rewriting after 30 years.