Is RTI applicant competent to approach the consumer protection forum?
There has been a lot of discussions and difference of opinion as to whether an applicant who pays the ‘application fee’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 can be called as a ‘consumer’ under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 1986. The issue is important as it provides for additional remedy under CPA for any deficiency in ‘services’ provided under the RTI Act. Readers may like to refer to the article “Additional remedy for RTI applicants under the Consumer Protection Act” Read more at: http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/additional-remedy-rti-applicants-under-consumer-pr-2642#.VLMu7dKUclA
Now, a Bench of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), presided by Justice Ajit Bharihoke, Justice V.K. Jain and Dr. B.C. Gupta has ruled that “no complaint by a person alleging deficiency in services rendered by the CPIO/PIO is maintainable before a Consumer Forum.” The bench has held that the RTI Act is a complete code in itself ousting the jurisdiction of civil courts. The net impact of the order is that a person seeking information under the RTI Act cannot seek compensation for deficiency in services under the CPA.
The NCDRC was hearing many petitions where the RTI applicants had claimed compensation on grounds such as delayed or unsatisfactory information, etc. The Bench ruled that:
1. Mere payment of consideration in the form of fee and additional fee coupled with supply of information under the RTI Act is not conclusive of the issue involved. The bench held that “...the RTI Act is a complete code in itself, which provides an adequate and effective remedy to the person aggrieved from any decision/ inaction/ act /omission or misconduct of a CPIO/PIO,” NCDRC said.
2. The bench observed that “Not only does the (RTI) Act provides for two appeals, it also provides for a complaint to the Central Information Commission or the State Information Commission, as the case may be, in a case where the CPIO/PIO does not give his decision, on the application, within the prescribed time. If a person is still aggrieved, he can approach the concerned High Court by way of a writ petition.”
3. It was submitted by Shri Sanjay Kr. Mishra (the complainant) that the Appellate Authorities under the RTI Act, cannot award compensation for the deficiency in the services rendered to the complainants, whereas the Consumer Fora can provide such a relief and, therefore, the remedy available under the RTI Act cannot be said to be an equally efficacious remedy. The bench held that it is not necessary that the legislature has to provide for grant of compensation in every case of deficiency in the services rendered to a consumer. The legislature has empowered the Information Commission to impose penalty upon the errant CPIO/PIO besides recommending disciplinary action against them. Additionally, Sub Section (8) of Section 19 empowers them to direct the concerned public authority to pay suitable compensation to the information seeker who has suffered any loss or other detriment on account of the acts, omissions or inaction of its CPIO/PIO, as the case may be. Therefore, the redressal mechanism provided under the RTI Act cannot be said to be in any manner less efficacious then the remedy available before a consumer forum.
4. Considering the legislative intent behind providing a special mechanism for enforcement of the rights conferred by RTI Act, the bench took the view that the consumer fora are ‘courts’ for the purpose of Section 23 of the RTI Act. Any other interpretation will open two parallel machineries, for enforcement of the same rights created by a special statute, which could not have been the legislative intent, particularly when RTI Act is a special law visàvis Consumer Protection Act. The ambit of RTI Act is confined to one service i.e. supply of information, whereas the Consumer Protection Act deals with deficiencies in a wide variety of services rendered for consideration
The bench ruled that:
(i) the person seeking information under the provisions of RTI Act cannot be said to be a consumer visàvis the Public Authority concerned or CPIO/PIO nominated by it and
(ii) the jurisdiction of the Consumer Fora to intervene in the matters arising out of the provisions of the RTI Act is barred by necessary implication as also under the provisions of Section 23 of the RTI Act.
Consequently no complaint by a person alleging deficiency in the services rendered by the CPIO/PIO is maintainable before a Consumer Forum.
The NCDRC has relied upon the fact that the RTI Act is a complete act by itself. Section 23 of the RTI Act bars the judisdiction of courts and reads”No court shall entertain any suit, application or other proceeding in respect of any order made under this Act and no such order shall be called in question otherwise than by way of an appeal under this Act.” Since the matter pertains to interpretation of the law, the matter is likely to be taken up with the higher judicial for a thorough examination.