By Tanishka Tiwari
Published on: November 07, 2023 at 12:03 IST
In an ever-evolving global market, it is of utmost importance to safeguard the rights and interests of consumers. In light of this, numerous governments have established regulatory bodies to shield consumers from unethical practices and ensure equitable trade.
The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) is a pivotal institution in India that is wholly committed to the preservation of consumer rights and the promotion of a competitive and transparent marketplace.
This authority was instituted in compliance with Section 10(1) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.1 The aforementioned Act seeks to expand the purview of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 in the resolution of consumer grievances.
The novel legislation criminalises the dissemination of inaccurate information pertaining to the quality or quantity of a product or service, as well as the dissemination of deceptive advertisements. Additionally, it expressly outlines the course of action to be undertaken in the event that goods or services are found to be “dangerous, hazardous, or unsafe.”
Even when taking a comprehensive understanding of Chapter III of the Act into account, it is evident that the regulatory mandate of the CCPA has been equipped with a formidable array of investigative, interrogative, and preventive measures.
Consequently, the powers of the CCPA are expansive and possess the capacity to address gaps that have arisen due to statutory limitations and restricted interpretations established by Consumer Fora and Commissions under the previous regime. On the contrary, the involvement of the CCPA with the various Consumer Commissions remains a subject of speculation and discussion.
Key Objectives of CCPA
- The CCPA prohibits unfair trade practices, misleading marketing, false claims, and deceptive promotions as one of its core objectives. It makes certain that consumers receive accurate and transparent information about products and services.
- The CCPA has the jurisdiction to examine consumer complaints about unfair commercial practices and to take necessary action against enterprises that are found to be involved.
- Businesses who breach consumer rights or engage in unfair commercial practices may face penalties, fines, or other punitive actions imposed by the authorities.
- To avert harm, the CCPA can mandate recalls or withdrawals of items that pose a concern to consumer health or safety.
- The CCPA is critical in informing consumers about their rights and duties. It runs awareness programmes, seminars, and workshops to provide customers with the information they need to make educated decisions.
- The CCPA represents consumers in policy forums, pushing for measures that improve consumer protection and welfare.
- To promote consistency in consumer protection measures across the country, the authority works with state consumer dispute resolution commissions, consumer protection councils, and other relevant entities.
CCPA: Powers and Jurisdiction
The enactment of the Act in the year 2019 sets up three distinct legislative entities, specifically:
- Consumer Protection Councils
- Central Consumer Protection Authority
- Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (ie the District Commission, State Commission and National Commission)
On initial examination, it is apparent that the jurisdiction and responsibilities of each of these entities are separate, and they function theoretically in various contexts.
The Consumer Protection Councils, which are similar to those established under the 1986 Act, are intended to be purely advisory in nature, with a hierarchical structure consisting of district, state, and national councils presided over by ex-officio members from the executive or ministries in charge.
These councils do not possess any powers of enforcement, adjudication, or investigation, and it is advisable to consider them as the primary body responsible for formulating policies as established by the Act.
The Disputes Redressal Commissions, which have been instituted by the recent enactment, represent a minor modification of the forums that were set up under the legislation of 1986, albeit incorporating noteworthy amendments in the provisions concerning the grounds for filing a claim and the authority’s jurisdiction. Conversely, the commissions still retain their quasi-judicial nature as organisations empowered to adjudicate consumer disputes and render legally binding decisions.
The CCPA, in contrast to the Councils and Commissions, does not exclusively function as a regulatory, advisory, or policy-making entity. Nor does it solely operate in an adjudicatory and quasi-judicial capacity.
The structure of the CCPA is primarily centralised, with the provision for regional offices being the only requirement in the Act. No State or District Authorities need to be established. The CCPA comprises the Chief Commissioner, Commissioners, a team of subject matter experts and professionals,2 and an investigation branch headed by a Director-General.3
Advisory & Regulatory
The jurisdiction of the CCPA encompasses a wide range of areas, including the regulation of violations of consumer rights, unfair trade practices, and misleading advertisements. It is worth noting that the authority to regulate is subject to certain conditions outlined in the act.
Specifically, rather than being limited to disputes between individual consumers and service providers, manufacturers, or sellers, the regulatory powers of the CCPA should only be invoked when the rights of consumers in general or as a collective group are at risk of being adversely affected.
Section 18 of the Act explicitly states that the CCPA has the power to protect, promote, and enforce the rights of consumers as a collective entity.4
The CCPA also has the authority to assess safeguards provided by legislation other than the Act of 2019, and to recommend corrective actions for issues that impede the enjoyment of consumer rights. It may also highlight best practices in international consumer rights and promote the establishment of international agreements.
The CCPA can conduct and promote consumer rights research, as well as urge NGOs and other consumer protection organisations to collaborate. In addition, as a statutory think tank, the CCPA can advise the federal and state governments on measures to guarantee consumer welfare and best practices.
The primary regulatory authority of the CCPA is to issue appropriate guidelines that aim to prohibit unfair trade practices and safeguard consumer interests. By amalgamating the insights from various stakeholders, global experiences, and the expertise of subject matter specialists, the CCPA can effectively establish best practices, model rules, and regulations to regulate the otherwise ambiguous and unfamiliar realm of unfair trade practices.
Additionally, these regulations would also function as guiding principles for courts, quasi-judicial entities such as consumer commissions, and different state government offices. The Central Government’s policymaking under the 1986 Act has consistently faced criticism due to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs not being an independent ministry and often being hindered by delays caused by other pressing responsibilities.
The role of advising performed by the CCPA, as stated in Section 18 of the 2019 Act, directs attention to the similarities between these objectives and those of the Consumer Protection Councils outlined in the 1986 Act, as well as the current act. The Councils were entrusted with the objective of promoting and safeguarding consumer rights as articulated in the 1986 Act. A thorough examination of these rights, such as the right to protection against the marketing of hazardous goods, unfair trade practices, competitive pricing, and so forth, reveals notable parallels with the advising role of the CCPA.
The Council’s deficiency in implementing and penalising measures was compensated by the CCPA’s capacity to conduct investigations and impose penalties. The question arises as to whether the creation of a novel statutory entity, with its own prerequisites for physical infrastructure, personnel, internal procedures, and so forth, will lead to further complications. One could contend that instead of establishing a new hierarchical system of Consumer Protection Councils, it may have been feasible to empower the existing structure with an investigative division, in addition to endowing it with the full range of punitive powers delineated in the current legislation.
Inquiry & Investigation under CCPA
It would not be inaccurate to assert that the most potent and comprehensive authority granted by the CCPA is manifested in its ability to engage in inquiries and investigations. The Act of 2019 necessitates the formation of a specialised Investigation Wing consisting of a Director General, an additional Director General, and any other directors or additional directors. This hierarchy of enforcement officers seems to possess a hierarchical framework of its own for reporting and executing its obligations as mandated by the legislation.
According to the 2019 Act’s scheme, inquiries and investigations can be conducted in the following cases:
- Consumer rights violation
- Unfair business practises
- Advertisements that are false or misleading
A detailed review of Sections 17 and 19 of the Act reveals that the right to undertake inquiry and investigation is conditional on “prejudice to the public interest or to the interests of consumers as a class.” Whether imposing this criterion limits the CCPA’s jurisdiction to instances involving a significant number of claims or concerns impacting the interests of a large number of consumers is a question of interpretation and judicial review.
However, it is prudent to note that the repeated use of terms such as ‘public interest’ or ‘consumers as a class’ cannot be presumed to be random. It also ensures, by implication, that inter se disputes between a consumer and a service provider/manufacturer/seller that do not affect public interest or consumers as a class will be adjudicated before Consumer Commissions.
This is not to say that just because a dispute is between a consumer and a service provider/manufacturer/seller, it loses its significance in terms of public interest or consumers as a class. Thus, whether the public interest or consumer rights as a class are affected should be decided by the CCPA’s wisdom. It goes without saying that such a CCPA decision would be susceptible to court scrutiny if it violated administrative or constitutional law standards.
The steps involved in conducting an inquiry or investigation are as follows:
- Preliminary investigation
- The Investigation Wing, the District Collector, or
- A Statutory Regulator will conduct an investigation.
The CCPA can launch a preliminary investigation suo motu, in response to a complaint, or in response to Central Government directives. The CCPA’s complaint jurisdiction can be triggered by filing a written complaint with the Commissioner of the Regional Office or the CCPA directly under Section 17 of the Act.
The Section also allows for a complaint to be filed to the district collector, and if such a complaint is made, the district collector may, after conducting an adequate investigation, send his report to the CCPA or Regional Commissioner. It is unclear whether the CCPA would be obliged by the district collector’s inquiry and conclusion if it received a ‘positive report,’ i.e. a report alleging breach of consumer rights, etc.
More so because, pursuant to Section 19, the CCPA is required by the phrase shall cause investigation’ to instruct that an investigation be performed by the DG or the District Collector. As a result, if a consumer or group of consumers files a complaint with the District Collector, who then conducts an inquiry or investigation under Section 16 of the Act, 2019, the District Collector’s report forwarded to the CCPA may result in multiple investigations, first by the District Collector, then by the CCPA, and finally by either the Investigation Wing or the District Collector himself.
It would therefore be proper to enforce these articles of law harmoniously, and upon receipt of a complaint, the district collector should not conduct an inquiry or probe of his own choice without first informing the CCPA. Only once the report is forwarded and the CCPA is satisfied that a prima facie case exists under Section 19 of the Act, can the next steps be taken, such as an investigation by the Investigation Wing or the District Collector himself.
The Act does not specify how preliminary inquiries should be conducted, and the only advice available is the usage of the phrase ‘presence of a prima facie case’. As a result, satisfying the CCPA must be governed by general criteria for determining the existence of a prima facie case. Upon receipt of a complaint, the CCPA must determine whether the accusations in the complaint are fit for inquiry based on the record and available materials.
The CCPA may, prior to recording its satisfaction, provide the erring party with an opportunity to be heard; however, such an option should be exercised only where the CCPA believes there is a lacuna capable of being ascertained in a prima facie inquiry as to the truth of the allegation and not in the manner of a detailed fact-finding exercise at the preliminary stage. This was not the legislature’s intention, because the investigation is to be carried out by the Investigation Wing or District Collector following a preliminary inquiry, while strictly adhering to principles of natural justice and Code of Criminal Procedure provisions wherever applicable.
Search & Seizure under CCPA
To supplement the powers of investigation granted to the CCPA and the investigative wing, the 2019 Act allows the Director General, authorised subordinate officers, or the District Collector, as the case may be, powers of search and seizure.5
The existence of a ‘reason to think’ of a breach of consumer rights, unfair trade practices, or misleading ads is the criterion for exercising the power of search and seizure under the act. In numerous para materia legislations, Hon’ble Courts of law have interpreted the term “reason to believe.”
It is a well-known legal principle that before authorising a search and seizure, reason to believe must be established based on accessible evidence and recorded by the appropriate authorities.6 Such grounds for belief must be founded on reasonable facts and cannot be speculative or arbitrary.7
As a result, the CCPA’s powers of search and seizure should not be used on a regular basis without due process. The authority of search and seizure is further limited by the application of the CrPC’s search and seizure provisions.
It is worth noting that, while the CCPA has not been granted the powers of a civil court to secure the production of essential documents, a provision has been made under Section 22(1)(c) under which the CCPA can require any person to disclose any record, document, or article.
The CCPA has thus been allowed the ability to produce relevant records only after documenting its satisfaction for reason to believe and issuing a suitable warrant in accordance with the CrPC, which is admittedly a higher threshold.
Injunction & Penalty
The powers of investigation granted to the NCW or NCPCR appear to be comparable to those granted to the CCPA. However, significant differences between these authorities develop as a result of the outcomes of such probes or investigations. Whereas the NCW and NCPCR are only regulatory authorities with the authority to propose criminal action or seek injunctive relief from the State, the CCPA has been legislatively empowered to issue enforceable orders. The CCPA has the authority to issue the following orders under the 2019 Act:
- Recalling of goods or withdrawal of services;
- Reimbursement to purchasers;
- Discontinuation of unfair practices;
- Discontinuation of advertisements;
- Penalty for misleading advertisements;
- Prohibitory order against endorser of misleading advertisements;
- Penalty on publisher of misleading advertisements.
Noncompliance with the aforementioned instructions would result in criminal charges (including imprisonment and/or a fine).8 In addition to the authority to issue the aforementioned directives, the 2019 Act designates the CCPA as the sole authorised complainant for initiating criminal complaints against manufacturers or service providers who cause the publishing of fraudulent or misleading advertisements.9 This provision is aggressively worded and calls for jail and a fine as punishment.
Functions of CCPA
The CCPA’s functions are as follows:
- To safeguard, promote, and enforce the rights of consumers as a class, as well as to prevent violations of consumers’ rights under this Act;
- Prevent unfair trade practises and ensure that no one engages in unfair trade practises; ensure that no false or misleading advertising of any goods or services is made that violates the provisions of this Act or the rules or regulations made thereunder; and
- Ensure that no one participates in the publication of any false or misleading advertisement.
Significance of CCPA
- The establishment of a centralised consumer protection body instils trust in customers, ensuring them that their rights are cherished and safeguarded.
- The CCPA encourages healthy competition among firms by prohibiting unfair trade practices, which ultimately benefits consumers by providing higher-quality goods and services at lower rates.
- The CCPA’s efforts to provide accurate and transparent information enable consumers to make educated decisions, reducing the dangers associated with inaccurate or misleading product information.
- The authority’s capacity to rapidly evaluate and respond to consumer complaints guarantees that consumers have a dependable path for obtaining justice and compensation in the event of a grievance.
In India’s consumer protection environment, the Central Consumer Protection Authority is a significant agency. Its creation demonstrates a commitment to protecting consumer rights and maintaining a fair and competitive market environment. The CCPA plays a critical role in empowering consumers and establishing a culture of responsible corporate practices by enforcing consumer protection legislation, combating unfair commercial practices, and advocating for consumer welfare. As India’s economy expands, the CCPA’s responsibility in maintaining a fair playing field for consumers and companies alike will become increasingly important.
- The Consumer Protection Bill, 2019
- What is Central Consumer Protection Authority?
1. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.10(1), No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
2. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.13(3), No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
3. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.15, No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
4. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.18, No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
5. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.22, No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
6. Union of India v Agarwal Iron Industries, (2014) 15 SCC 215
7. Tata Chemicals Ltd. v Commr. of Customs, (2015) 11 SCC 628
8. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.88, No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)
9. Consumer Protection Act, 2019, s.92, No.35, Acts of Parliament, 2019 (India)