Failure to Obtain Occupancy Certificate a Deficiency in Service by Developer: A Note on the Supreme Court’s Decision

On January 11, 2022, the Supreme Court of India delivered a noteworthy decision in the case of Samruddhi Co-operative Housing Society Ltd. vs. Mumbai Mahalaxmi Construction Pvt. Ltd.,[i] by affirming that the failure of a developer to obtain an occupancy certificate would constitute a deficiency in service under the consumer protection law of India.

Relevance of Occupancy Certificate

 

Setting up one’s perfect abode for peaceful dwelling calls not only for a perfect finishes and a picturesque interior but also entails ensuring that all housing-related statutory requirements are fulfilled. One such indispensable compliance, the very mention of which causes flat owners to prick up their ears is an occupancy certificate. Under such an occupancy certificate, the local municipal authority permits the occupation of any building, as provided under local laws, which has provision for civic infrastructure such as water, sanitation and electricity.[ii]

However, a large number of flat owners across the country are far from having a perfect legally compliant abode given the failure of developers to obtain occupancy certificates in a timely manner. As a matter of practice, flat owners would take possession of their flats before obtaining the occupancy certificate and refurbishing the interiors, which, in some cases would result in a violation of statutory requirements and would further complicate the process of obtaining an occupancy certificate. In the case of old buildings, the developers are seldom approachable, and the residents are left helpless, in anticipation and burdened with extra costs for years.

 

Background of the Case

 

The flat owners in the case of Samruddhi Co-operative Housing Society Ltd. vs. Mumbai Mahalaxmi Construction Pvt. Ltd., had purchased flats from Mumbai Mahalaxmi Construction Pvt. Ltd. (“Respondent-Developer”) around the year 1993, were given possession of their flats around the year 1997, and had further constituted themselves into a co-operative housing society viz. ‘Samruddhi Co-operative Housing Society Limited’ (“Appellant-Society”). The Respondent-Developer failed to obtain the occupancy certificate for the buildings of the Appellant Society but went ahead and delivered possession of the flats. Consequently, the Appellant Society, being ineligible to obtain electricity and water supply services in the absence of the occupancy certificate, was burdened with extra taxes and charges payable to the local municipal authority, including payment of excess property tax at 25 per cent over and above the normal rate and water charges at 50 per cent over and above the normal rate.

In the year 1998, the Appellant-Society instituted a consumer complaint before the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (“SCDRC”) seeking that the Respondent-Developer be directed to obtain the required occupancy certificate. The SCDRC not only issued a direction to the Respondent-Developer to obtain the required occupancy certificate within a period of 4 months but also directed the payment of INR 100,000/- towards reimbursement of the excess water charges paid by the Appellant-Society. Upon the failure of the Respondent-Developer to comply with the aforesaid directions of SCDRC, the Appellant-Society filed a complaint before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (“NCDRC”), the apex consumer dispute resolution forum in the country, in the year 2016.

The aforesaid complaint was filed on the statutory ground of ‘deficiency in service’ of the Respondent-Developer and the Appellant-Society sought payment of INR 26,073,475/- as reimbursement of excess charges and tax paid by the Appellant-Society and INR 2,000,000/- towards the mental agony and inconvenience caused to the members of the Appellant-Society. However, the NCDRC dismissed the aforesaid complaint on the grounds of being time-barred and the ineligibility of the Appellant Society to seek relief as a ‘consumer’ under Section 2(1)(d) of the governing statute i.e., the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (“CP Act”). The Appellant-Society thereafter challenged the decision of the NCDRC before the Supreme Court.

 

Operating Law

 

In addition to dealing with the point of limitation as per the CP Act, the Supreme Court, in its analysis, considered the provision of the Maharashtra Ownership Flats (Regulation of the promotion of construction, sale, management and transfer) Act, 1963 (“MOF Act”), which was introduced to curb malpractices by developers in relation to the sale of flats on an ownership basis.

Section 3 of the MOF Act prevents a developer from allowing a flat purchaser to take possession of a flat before the completion certificate, as may be required under law, is duly obtained by the developer from the local authorities.

Section 6 of the MOF Act obligates a developer to discharge payment of all outgoings, including municipal or other taxes and water charges, until the developer transfers the flats to the flat owners or organisation of flat owners. Further, the aforesaid provision clarifies that the developer will continue to be liable for payment of dues and penalties related to the outgoings which were collected from the flat owners prior to the transfer of the flats, even after such transfer is completed.

By a co-joint reading of Sections 3 and 6 of the MOF Act, the Supreme Court concluded that the Respondent-Developer was obligated to provide the Appellant-Society with the occupancy certificate and was also liable to discharge payment of all outgoings until such a certificate was provided. The Supreme Court further observed that the failure of the Respondent-Developer to do so was a continuing wrong and the Appellant-Society was entitled to claim compensation for such continuing wrong.

 

The Verdict

 

Following the above analysis, the single-judge bench of Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud dealt with the findings of the NCDRC and overruled the decision of the NCDRC on the eligibility of the Appellant-Society as a consumer under Section 2(1)(d) of the CP Act. Based on precedent judgments of the Supreme Court, it was concluded that the failure of a developer to obtain an occupancy certificate or abide by contractual obligations would amount to a deficiency in service under the CP Act. The Supreme Court thus held that:

“In the present case, the respondent was responsible for transferring the title to the flats to the society along with the occupancy certificate. The failure of the respondent to obtain the occupation certificate is a deficiency in service for which the respondent is liable. Thus, the members of the appellant society are well within their rights as ‘consumers’ to pray for compensation as a recompense for the consequent liability (such as payment of higher taxes and water charges by the owners) arising from the lack of an occupancy certificate.”

Allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court thus, directed NCDRC to decide the complaint based on the observations made by the Supreme Court in deciding the appeal and dispose of the complaint within a period of 3 months from the date of the judgment therein.

 

Significance of the Judgment

 

It is noteworthy that the provisions of the MOF Act have been interpreted in conjunction with the consumer protection law to offer relief to flat owners. It is expected that this judgment can come to the aid of flat owners who have purchased flats and are waiting for decades for regularisation of their flats.

In the present scenario, under the Real Estate (Regulation & Development) Act, 2016 (“RER Act”) (which was introduced in the succession of the MOF Act) developers are obligated to obtain the completion certificate or the occupancy certificate, or both, as applicable, from the relevant authority and make the same available to the flat purchasers or association of flat purchasers.[iii] Hence, for buildings that are registered under the RER Act, the authority set up under the RER Act can be approached in case of delay by the developer to provide an occupancy certificate.

Thus, the instant matter also resounds an alarm bell for developers to ensure that the occupancy certificate requirements are complied with as a prime concern as flat purchasers may have recourse to multiple forums to seek relief in case of any delay in this regard.

References

[i]Civil Appeal No. 4000 of 2019 in the Supreme Court of India Civil Appellate Jurisdiction.

[ii]Real Estate (Regulation & Development) Act, 2016 (Act No. 16 of 2016), §2(zf).

[iii]Real Estate (Regulation & Development) Act, 2016, § 11(4)(b).

 

Image Credits: Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

It is noteworthy that the provisions of the MOF Act have been interpreted in conjunction with the consumer protection law to offer relief to flat owners. It is expected that this judgment can come to the aid of flat owners who have purchased flats and are waiting for decades for the regularisation of their flats. In the present scenario, under the Real Estate (Regulation & Development) Act, 2016 (“RER Act”) (which was introduced in the succession of MOF Act) developers are obligated to obtain the completion certificate or the occupancy certificate, or both, as applicable, from the relevant authority and make the same available to the flat purchasers or association of flat purchasers.

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