Legal profession is sui generis: Supreme Court held that Advocates are not liable under the Consumer Protection Act for deficiency of services

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Today, the Supreme Court (SC) of India held that advocates are not liable under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (re-enacted in 2019) for deficiency of services. The bench constituting Justice Bela M Trivedi and Justice Pankaj Mithal said the legal profession is sui generis and cannot be compared with any other profession. It also said, “A service hired or availed of an Advocate is a service under ‘a contract of personal service,’ and therefore would fall within the exclusionary part of the definition of ‘Service’ contained in Section 2 (42) of the CP Act 2019.” The bench clarified that a complaint alleging ‘deficiency in service’ against advocates practicing the legal profession would not be maintainable under the CP Act, 2019. Moreover, the SC overruled a 2007 judgment of the NCDRC (National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission) which ruled that the services rendered by the advocates or lawyers are covered under Section 2(o) of the CP Act. 

During the proceedings, Justice Trivedi said that the judgment has distinguished profession from business and trade. She said, “A ‘Profession’ would require advanced education and training in some branch of learning or science. The nature of work is also skilled and specialised one, substantial part of which would be mental rather than manual. Therefore, having regard to the nature of work of a professional, which requires high level of education, training, and proficiency and which involves skilled and specialized kind of mental work, operating in the specialized spheres, where achieving success would depend upon many other factors beyond a man’s control, a Professional cannot be treated equally or at par with a Businessman or a Trader or a Service provider of products or goods as contemplated in the CP Act.” Further, the SC bench said “We are therefore of the considered opinion that the very purpose and object of the CP Act 1986 as re-enacted in 2019 was to provide protection to the consumers from the unfair trade practices and unethical business practices only. There is nothing on record to suggest that the Legislature ever intended to include the Professions or the Professionals within the purview of the Act.” 

The SC also said that its 1995 judgment in the Indian Medical Association vs. VP Shantha case, which brought medical professions under the CP Act, required consideration. While delivering the judgment, the bench also examined the relationship between an Advocate and his Client. It observed that “Advocates are fastened with all the traditional duties that agents owe to their principals. For example, Advocates have to respect the client’s autonomy to make decisions at a minimum, as to the objectives of the representation. Advocates are not entitled to make concessions or give any undertaking to the Court without express instructions from the Client. It is the solemn duty of an Advocate not to transgress the authority conferred on him by his Client…” It added that a considerable amount of direct control is exercised by the Client over how an Advocate renders his services during his employment. 

Considering this, the bench said that “all of these attributes strengthen our opinion that the services hired or availed of an Advocate would be that of a contract ‘of personal service’ and would therefore stand excluded from the definition of “service” contained in section 2(42) of the CP Act, 2019. As a necessary corollary, a complaint alleging “deficiency in service” against Advocates practicing the Legal Profession would not be maintainable under the CP Act, 2019.” During the proceedings, Senior Advocate Narender Hooda and Advocate Jasbir Malik appeared for the Bar of Indian Lawyers. Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta and Senior Advocate Guru Krishnakumar represented the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association and the Bar Council of India respectively. Senior Advocate Manoj Swarup appeared for the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association. Senior Advocate Vikas Singh and Senior Advocate Ramakrishnan Viraraghavan represented the Bengaluru Bar Association.