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Supreme Court Exempts Lawyers from Consumer Protection Act in Landmark Ruling.

In a landmark judgment delivered on May 14, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled that lawyers cannot be held liable under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) of 1986, overturning a previous decision by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). The ruling redefines the scope of professional accountability for legal services in India. The Supreme Court bench, comprising Justices Bela Trivedi and Pankaj Mithal, stressed that legal representation, although paid, does not constitute a ‘service’ as defined under the CPA due to the unique professional characteristics of the legal profession.

The case originated from an appeal against the NCDRC’s 2007 ruling, which classified legal services as falling within the purview of the CPA. This interpretation allowed clients to file complaints against lawyers for alleged deficiencies in service. Petitioners, including advocate M. Mathias and various lawyer associations, argued that the legal profession should be treated differently from other trades or businesses. They emphasized the unique duties lawyers have toward the court and their opponents, which can often conflict with client interests. Additionally, they highlighted the unpredictability and complexity inherent in legal proceedings, which can influence case outcomes independently of a lawyer’s skill or diligence.

The Supreme Court established a clear distinction between professions and other forms of business under the CPA. Justice Trivedi argued that the term ‘profession’ implies a discipline involving specialized knowledge or learning, distinct from a mere ‘business’ or ‘trade’ driven by commercial interests. The court highlighted that the legal profession is inherently service-oriented and noble, not driven by commercial gains. Lawyers are expected to uphold citizens’ rights and contribute to maintaining judicial independence and the rule of law. The court also noted that the relationship between a lawyer and a client is best described as a ‘personal service contract’ – a category specifically exempted under the CPA.

The ruling suggested revisiting previous judgments that differed in view, such as the inclusion of medical services under the CPA as decided in Indian Medical Association v. V.P. Shantha (1995). This landmark case had concluded that medical services fall under the concept of ‘services’ described in the Consumer Protection Act when a fee is charged, holding medical practitioners accountable to consumer standards of care. However, the Supreme Court signalled a potential revaluation of this definition, hinting that the scope of ‘services’ within the Act might need reinterpretation, specifically concerning medical professionals.

Distinguishing Lawyers from Other Professions
During the hearings, senior advocate Narender Hooda, appearing for the appellants, submitted that lawyers have a duty toward their colleagues and must be fair, unlike doctors who primarily focus on treating patients. Hooda argued that a lawyer cannot be seen as a mere “mouthpiece” for their client, as they have obligations to the court and the opposing counsel.

Justice Trivedi posed a hypothetical question: “Can you say something adverse to the interest of your client, even if you believe that is not, right? In a way, you are a mouthpiece to your client.” Hooda fervently opposed this view, stating, “My duty is to assist the Court in performing the sovereign function. That is the first duty. In that duty, I will espouse the cause of my client within the permissible four corners of law.”

Hooda further elucidated that while a patient can ask a doctor not to prescribe any particular medicine, a client cannot ask a lawyer to not cite any specific judgment. He highlighted, “There the relationship is this, if the patient says that you are prescribing me this medicine, I will not take it. My client cannot say that do not cite this judgment and cite only this judgment. This is how, my lords, my profession is completely different, and this is how public policy element is involved in legal profession.”

The decision has significant implications for the medical profession as well. The Supreme Court directed that the 1996 decision concerning medical professionals be reviewed by a larger bench, potentially reconsidering whether medical services should fall under the CPA.

Legal and Ethical Context
The ruling intervenes in a long-standing debate on whether professional services, like those provided by lawyers and doctors, should be assimilated within the ambit of consumer protection laws. While the judgment distinguished lawyers from other service providers by noting their duties involve elements beyond mere contractual obligations, it is important to note that claims of negligence and malpractice can still be pursued in ordinary courts.

The decision reaffirms the unique nature of the legal profession and its role in upholding the rule of law and judicial independence. However, it also raises questions about the accountability of professionals and the appropriate mechanisms for addressing deficiencies in service. As the implications of this landmark judgment unfold, it is expected to spark further discussions and potential legal challenges on the extent to which various professions should be subject to consumer protection laws or governed by their respective regulatory bodies and ethical codes.

 

Written by Maria Therese Syriac.

PRIME LEGAL is a full-service law firm that has won a National Award and has more than 20 years of experience in an array of sectors and practice areas. Prime legal fall into a category of best law firm, best lawyer, best family lawyer, best divorce lawyer, best divorce law firm, best criminal lawyer, best criminal law firm, best consumer lawyer, best civil lawyer.

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Defence representative for a workman is not permissible under inquiry proceedings : Bombay HC

Lawyer shows the scales of justice in hand on a blurred background.

TITLE : Ajit Bhagwan Sawant V M/s Parveen Industries Pvt Ltd.

CORAM : Hon’ble Justice Sandeep V Marne

DATE :  8th January 2024

CITATION : WP No. 11801 Of 2023

FACTS

The primary issue in the petition is about right of a workman to avail services of a legal practitioners to defend himself in the inquiry process by the labor officer. The appeal is on the basis of the industrial court rejecting the application for permission to defend the workman. The petitioner is working in the defendant company and has been subjected to domestic inquiry. The inquiry officer is a person practicing law and is a qualified advocate. The petitioner claim that the inquiry officer hurried the proceeding without granting enough opportunity to defend him. The petitioner had filed for an interim application under Section 30(2) of the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971.

LAWS INVOLVED

Bombay Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Rules 1959 gives the power to another workman or trade union member to defend a workman under enquiry.

Section 21 of the MRTU and PULP act, no workman shall be allowed to appear or act or allowed to be represented in any proceedings relating to unfair labour practices.

ISSUES

Whether the employee can be permitted to engage services of a legal practitioner as a defence representative?

JUDGEMENT

Under the Model Standing Orders imposes a restriction on the right of the workman to choose his defence representative. The court held that the employer has the right to impose such restriction. Further, it was held that as per the provisions of Clause 25 of the Model Standing Orders the defence representative can only be a workman working in the same department or an office-bearer of trade union of which he is a member.

The advocate is not appointed by the company and not an employee of the respondent company.

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Written by- Sanjana Ravichandran

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Delhi High Court Affirms Maternity Benefits for DSLSA Empanelled Advocates

Title:  Annwesha Deb v. Delhi State Legal Services Authority
Decided on:  26th July, 2023

+  W.P.(C) 11016/2017 & CM APPL. 2071/2022

CORAM: HON’BLE MR. JUSTICE CHANDRA DHARI SINGH

Introduction

The Delhi High Court has ruled that female advocates empanelled with the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA) are entitled to maternity benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. The court emphasized the importance of allowing women to balance both their careers and motherhood without being forced to choose between the two.

Facts

The court addressed a writ petition filed by a female advocate empanelled with DSLSA. She sought directions to grant her consecutive maternity benefits similar to those provided to regular female employees.

Analysis

Justice Chandra Dhari Singh, presiding over a Single Bench, highlighted that maternity benefits are not solely a statutory or contractual entitlement between employer and employee. Instead, they are integral to a woman’s identity and dignity when she decides to start a family. The court underlined that the liberty to become a mother is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The environment should support a woman’s ability to make decisions about her personal and professional life, ensuring that women who choose both a career and motherhood are not forced into a difficult “either-or” situation.

The court emphasized that obstructing a woman’s exercise of this right without proper legal procedure is not only against the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution but also violates the core principles of social justice.

Key Points

The petitioner was appointed as a legal aid counsel on a daily fee basis by the Juvenile Justice Board-I in New Delhi. During her contractual period, she became pregnant and applied for seven months of maternity leave in October 2017.

The petitioner’s request for maternity benefits was denied by DSLSA, stating that such benefits were not provided for legal services authorities. Dissatisfied with the decision, the petitioner approached the court seeking remedy.

The court highlighted the historical struggle women faced in achieving equal treatment in both skilled and unskilled work, stressing the importance of understanding that equal treatment doesn’t always mean identical treatment.

The court noted that the changes a woman undergoes during pregnancy go beyond just biological aspects, and accommodating her needs is essential. Pushing pregnant women to work on par with others can result in grave injustice and violate the principles of equity and equality envisaged by the Constitution.

The court rejected the argument that the petitioner’s relationship with DSLSA was that of a client and advocate, emphasizing that the nature of payment didn’t negate the employer-employee relationship.

The court ruled that the petitioner’s case falls within the definition of wages under the Maternity Benefit Act and that the Act’s intent was not to limit relief based on the nature of employment.

The court criticized DSLSA’s denial of maternity benefits to contractual employees despite extending these benefits to regular employees.

Emphasizing that maternity benefits are essential for the well-being of both mother and child, the court called for a change in perspective to ensure women can balance family and career.

The court concluded that withholding maternity benefits violates both constitutional rights and the spirit of social justice. It urged the state and all subjects of the Act to uphold its provisions and objectives.

Held

The Delhi High Court’s decision to uphold maternity benefits for female advocates empanelled with DSLSA is a step toward gender equality and women’s empowerment. The ruling emphasizes the importance of recognizing the fundamental rights of women to balance career and motherhood without being compelled to make a difficult choice.

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Written by- Ankit Kaushik

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