SC mandates RBI to frame bank locker rules in 6 months
NEW DELHI, Feb 19: The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to frame comprehensive rules within six months on bank locker and safe deposit facilities to prevent the banks imposing unilateral and unfair terms on the consumers.
Pending the RBI rules, the Bench of Justices Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Vineet Saran said the principal laid down by it on responsibilities of the bank will be binding on all banks providing such facilities.
It also directed the RBI to issue suitable rules on the responsibility of the banks for any loss or damage to the contents of the lockers. The case arose from Kolkata-based Amitabha Dasgupta challenging the United Bank of India (now merged into the Punjab National Bank) on the bank breaking open his mother's locker taken on rent in the Deshapriya Park, Kolkata branch, in the early 1950s. He was made a joint holder of the locker by his mother, who is no more. The locker was broken open despite full payment of rent and some jewellery put in it was found missing.
The Court imposed a cost of Rs 5 lakh on the bank as a compensation to Dasgupta, holding that the amount be deducted from the salary of the erring officers. If they had already retired, it said the bank will have to pay the cost. It also ordered Rs 1 lakh to be paid to the appellant as the litigation expenses.
The victim, however, got justice after 25 years of struggle. Even in the Supreme Court, the case went on for more than a decade as he had filed the appeal back in 2010.
The Bench also pointed out the importance of the banks in the life of the common man, with the advent of globalisation and the lockers have become an essential service provided by every bank to both Indian citizens and foreign nationals. It said the banks cannot wash off their hands and claim that they bear no liability towards their customers for the operation of the locker.
"The very purpose for which the customer avails of the locker hiring facility is so that they may rest assured that their assets are being properly taken care of. Such actions of the banks would not only violate the relevant
provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, but also damage investor confidence and harm our reputation as an emerging economy," the court said.
It also noted the transition from the dual key-operated lockers to the electronically-operated lockers and the customers are unlikely to possess the technological knowhow to control operation of such lockers. It said the miscreants may manipulate the technologies to gain access to such lockers without the customer's knowledge or consent. "Thus the customer is completely at the mercy of the bank, which is the more resourceful party, for the protection of their assets" and it cannot absolve itself of this responsibility and trusted bestowed on it by the customers, the Court said.
DETAILS: Dasgupta was appalled to find on 27.05.1995 when he went to the bank to operate the locker and deposit its rent that the bank had broken open the locker on 22.09.1994 for non-payment of rent dues for the period 1993-94. He sent notices to the bank that breaking of his locker was illegal since had had already cleared the dues of 1994-95 on 30.07.1994, i.e., prior to the breaking of the locker.
The chief manager of the bank responded, with admission to have inadvertently broken open the locker, though there were no outstanding dues to be paid and apologised for the same. When Dasgupta went to the bank on 17.06.1995 to collect the contents of the locker, he found only two items -- a pair of bangles and a pair of earpussa -- out of seven ornaments.
Dasgupta went to the district consumer forum which ordered the bank to return the entire contents of the locker or alternatively pay the appellant Rs 3 lakhs towards cost of the jewelry and Rs 50,000 as compensation for mental agony, harassment and cost of litigation. The state commission upheld the district forum's order on 12.10.2014 while directing Dasgupta to move a civil court to adjudicate on the contents of the locker. The National Commission accepted the state commission's decision on the limited jurisdiction of the consumer forum to adjudicate on the recovery of the contents of the locker.