SC to Reconsider its Judgement in Indian Medical Association vs V P Shantha
May 21, 2024

Why in News?

The SC held that lawyers (as ‘professionals’) could not be subjected to legal proceedings for providing faulty ‘service’ under the Consumer Protection Act 2019 (CPA).

However, the apex court rejected similar arguments for those in the medical profession and ruled that its judgement in Indian Medical Association vs V P Shantha (1995) to be referred to a larger bench for reconsideration.

What’s in Today’s Article?

  • What is the Consumer Protection Act (CPA)?
  • What the Apex Court Ruled in Indian Medical Association vs V P Shantha (1995)?
  • What was the Recent Case Before the SC?
  • Arguments for Exempting Medical Profession from the Purview of CPA
  • Why does the Apex Court not Exempt Medical Profession from the Purview of CPA?

What is the Consumer Protection Act (CPA)?

  • The CPA is aimed at protecting the interests of consumers with respect to products or services they avail.
  • The first version of the act was enacted in 1986 and it was subsequently repealed, and a new act was brought in its place in 2019 to keep up with the changing times.
  • A consumer who is unhappy with a product or service can file a complaint of deficiency in the consumer commission.
  • The act defines deficiency in service as any fault, imperfection, shortcoming or inadequacy in the quality, nature and manner of performance which is required to be maintained under law.
  • The 2019 act defines service as something that is made available to potential users and includes the provision of facilities in connection with banking, insurance, transport, housing construction, entertainment, amusement, etc.
  • However, it does not include the rendering of any service free of charge or under a contract of personal service.

What the Apex Court Ruled in Indian Medical Association vs V P Shantha (1995)?

  • In 1995, a three-judge bench of the SC ruled that doctors would be covered under the consumer protection law, allowing the filing of several medical negligence lawsuits filed against doctors for deficiency in service.
  • The court also acknowledged that professional occupations are often “skilled” work that require “mental rather than manual” effort.
  • This differs from other occupations as success often depends on factors “beyond the professional man’s control”.

What was the Recent Case Before the SC?

  • In 2007, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission held that lawyers provide a service to their clients and hence they can be sued for deficiency of service.
    • This case ultimately reached the apex court where the judgement was passed recently.
  • The court concluded that the object of the CPA 2019 was to provide protection to consumers from unfair trade practices and unethical business practices.
  • The law was not intended to include professions or services rendered by professionals within its purview.
  • The court noted that the legal profession is unique in nature and cannot be compared with any other profession.
  • The court said that hiring or availing of an advocate is “a contract of personal service” and is therefore exempted from the scope of the consumer protection law.

Arguments for Exempting Medical Profession from the Purview of CPA:

  • Representing the Indian Medical Association, a senior advocate argued that a medical practitioner cannot be judged based on fixed norms or standards, and thus cannot be covered under the CPA.
  • Legal proceedings under the CPA are heard by Consumer Redressal Commissions which are constituted at the District, State, and National levels.
    • Under the 1986 version of the CPA (applicable in 1995), the President of each Commission would be a person who was/ is qualified to be a judge at the District, HC, and SC respectively.
    • The rest of the members would be individuals who have the knowledge, experience, or capacity to deal with problems relating to economics, law, commerce, accountancy, industry, public affairs or administration.
    • Since there is no requirement for commission members to have knowledge in medical matters, they are not suited to deal with complex medical issues.
  • In 2024, another SC bench appeared to be more sympathetic to the medical practitioners, and held that these professionals should not be held to the same standard as other occupations.

Why does the Apex Court not Exempt Medical Profession from the Purview of CPA?

  • The court held that a doctor owes certain duties to their patients - duties of care in deciding whether to treat the patient, what treatment to give, and how the treatment is administered.
  • If the doctor does not exercise a “reasonable degree of care” and breaches one of these duties, they can be liable for deficiency in service under the CPA.
  • Members to have knowledge and experience that is specifically relevant to each case would lead to impossible situations.
    • Such as District Commissions being able to deal with cases that the State Commission would be barred from purely.
    • The burden is instead on the parties to provide the necessary evidence and material to allow the members to make an informed decision.