Advocates beyond ambit of consumer law: apex court

NEW DELHI - In a temporary ruling, the Supreme Court Monday held that advocates are not liable to be dragged to consumer courts for allegedly providing unsatisfactory services to their clients.

A bench of Justice Lokeshwar Singh Panta and Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy gave the ruling, while suspending the country’s apex consumer court order that held advocates to be within the ambit of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, and liable to be dragged to consumer courts.

The bench gave the temporary ruling after a cursory and preliminary examination of the relevant laws and said it would give final hearing after a detailed examination of the issue.

On a lawsuit challenging a decision of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission that said advocates are within the ambit of the consumer law, the apex court earlier had issued notices to the government and various other parties without suspending the NCDRC order.

Pending its detailed examination of the issue, the apex court on Monday stayed the NCDRC order.

The petitioner, Bar of Indian Lawyers’ (BIL), had contended in its lawsuit that the August 6, 2007, order of the commission was not maintainable as consumer forums that followed summary proceedings could not decide a lawyer’s alleged negligence.

Terming the decision to subject lawyers to the jurisdiction of consumer courts as illegal, BIL president Jasbir Singh Malik claimed the commission failed to make a distinction between the profession of lawyers and that of doctors.

‘The relationship between an advocate and his client is in no way comparable to the relationship of doctor and patient,’ Malik said.

In its order, the NCRDC had said that lawyers were as liable as doctors or any other professionals for negligence/deficiency in service and clients had every right to take them to courts if they failed to do what was expected of them.

It had reversed an order of the Delhi Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, which had on March 10, 2006, held that the services rendered by lawyers would not come within the ambit of the Consumer Protection Act and, therefore, consumers had no right to file cases against lawyers before consumer courts.

However, the petitioner contended that the lawyers were basically the officers of the court who had a duty to assist the court and not to act as a mouthpiece of the client.

‘The lawyer renders his assistance to his client and nothing more, whereas the doctor-patient relationship is one to one…Lawyers cannot at all be compared with doctors,’ the petitioner said.

It said the NCRDC failed to appreciate the difference between a ‘consumer’ as defined under the Consumer Protection Act and a ‘client’. The Advocates Act governs the lawyer-client relationship.

The BIL submitted that a client executes the power of attorney, authorising the lawyer to do certain acts on his behalf, and there is no term of contract as to the liability of the lawyer in case he fails to do any such act.

When a client hires a lawyer, it is a unilateral contract executed by the client, giving authority to the lawyer to appear and represent the matter on his behalf without any specific assurance or undertaking.

Therefore, lawyers were not liable under the CP Act for deficient or negligent service, it claimed.

It claimed that the apex consumer court committed a grave error in law by encroaching upon the jurisdiction of Bar Council, a statutory body entitled to handle complaint against advocates.


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