Supreme Court
Supreme Court

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Reserve Bank of India to frame comprehensive rules within six months on bank locker and safe deposit facilities to prevent the banks from 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 draft suitable rules on the responsibility of the bank for loss or damage to the contents of the lockers.

The case stemmed from Kolkata-based Amitabha Dasgupta challenging the United Bank of India for its decision to break open his mother's locker taken on rent in Deshapriya Park, Kolkata branch, in the early 50s. 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 common man: Since, with the advent of globalisation, lockers have become an essential service provided by every bank to both citizens and foreign nationals. It said the banks cannot wash of their hands and claim that they bear no liability towards 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 dual key-operated lockers to the electronically-operated lockers and the fact that customers are unlikely to possess the technological know-how to control operation of such lockers. It said miscreants may manipulate technology 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 trust bestowed on it by the customers, the court said.

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