The Supreme Court of India recently ruled in the case of Bar of Indian Lawyers v. D.K. Gandhi PS National Institute of Communicable Diseases that advocates practising in the legal profession cannot be sued under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (“CPA”). This implies that clients who are dissatisfied with their lawyers, cannot seek the remedy provided for deficiency of services under the CPA. However, lawyers would still be liable under the Advocates Act of 1961, Bar Council rules, and other laws as applicable.

The Court arrived at this conclusion after analysing the statement of objects and reasons of the CPA 1986 as re-enacted in 2019, which aimed to protect the interests of consumers against exploitation by the traders and manufacturers, and did not even contain a whisper about professional services provided by doctors, advocates, etc.

There is a difference between ‘business’ or ‘trade’ on the one hand, and ‘profession’ on the other, inasmuch the former is a purely commercial endeavour while the latter is a result of advanced learning and specialised study.

Even among professions, the Court ruled that the legal profession is sui generis i.e. unique since lawyers have a duty to the court and society in addition to their client, and thus play an integral role in upholding the judicial system.

The CPA provides remedies to the consumer for defective goods and deficient services. However, the definition of ‘service’ under the CPA specifically excludes a contract of personal service.

Service angle

On the issue of whether lawyers provided a ‘service’ to clients, the Court noted that advocates are agents of the client and could not to go beyond the wishes of the client in their representation before courts or substitute their own judgment in place of the client’s instructions. Thus, clients exercise a considerable amount of direct control over the advocate they have engaged for a particular case.

This led the Court to conclude that though an advocate provided a ‘service’ to the client, such services were in the nature of a contract ‘of personal service’ (as opposed to a contract ‘for personal service’) and would therefore stand excluded from the CPA. Since lawyers do not provide a service, as defined, they could not be held liable for a deficiency in servic.

It must be noted here that the amicus curiae appointed to assist the Court had recommended that advocates who provide services outside the litigation process, such as providing legal opinions or drafting commercial documents could be covered by the CPA. However, the judgement pronounced by the Court did not enforce this distinction.

Though the Court distinguished between the legal and medical professions, it also observed that professions in general should not be covered by the CPA and recommended that the earlier decision of the Supreme Court in Indian Medical Association v. V.P Shantha ought to be revisited, to exclude claims of deficiency in service against doctors as well. A decision regarding doctors may be delivered soon, though it is unclear what the holding would be. As of now, it is only legal services which have been excluded.

The present decision in Bar of Indian Lawyers was necessary to settle the issue of lawyers’ liability for unexpected outcomes. The Court was thus justified in protecting lawyers from deficiency in service claims under the CPA, while also leaving the door open to proceedings under other laws in genuine cases of wrongdoing.

The writers are with Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas