What is Public Interest Litigation (PIL)
PIL has not been defined in any Indian statute. However, Courts have interpreted and defined PIL. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has, in the case of Janata Dal v. H.S.Chaudhary 1993, held that the expression ‘PIL’ means a legal action started in a court of law for the enforcement of public/general interest where the public or a particular class of the public some interest (including pecuniary interest) that affects their legal rights or liabilities.
Source of PIL
- American law was the source of the term “public interest litigation,” which was intended to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups such as the disadvantaged, members of racial minorities, unorganized consumers, and individuals who were enthusiastic about environmental issues, among others.
Who Can File a PIL?
- Under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, in the supreme court, Article 226 in the High Court, and Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the magistrate court, any citizen can file a public case by filing a petition.
- However, the petitioner must prove to the court’s satisfaction that the petition is being filed in the public interest and not as a frivolous litigation by a busybody. The court may take cognizance of the matter and proceed with Suo motu, or any public-spirited individual may file a petition.
- The concept of “Locus Standi” has been relaxed in the case of PILs so as to enable the Hon’ble Court to look into grievances that are filed on behalf of those who are poor, illiterate, deprived or disabled and are unable to approach the courts themselves.
- A PIL can only be brought against the Central, state, or municipal governments and not against any individual. The Governmental and Parliament of India, each State’s Government and Legislature, and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India are all included in the definition of a state.
Genesis and evolution
- In the case of Mumbai Kamagar Sabha vs. Abdul Thai case, 1976, Justice Krishna Iyer laid the groundwork for the concept of public interest litigation in India.
- Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar (1979), which focused on the inhumane conditions of prisons and under-trial prisoners and resulted in the release of more than 40,000 under-trial prisoners, was the first PIL case to be reported. These prisoners had been denied the fundamental right to speedy justice.
- A new era of the PIL movement was heralded by Justice P.N. Bhagawati in the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India. In this case it was held that any member of the public or social action group acting bonafide can invoke the Writ Jurisdiction of the High Courts or the Supreme Court seeking redressal against violation of a legal or constitutional rights of persons who due to social or economic or any other disability cannot approach the Court.
- In 1981 the case of Anil Yadav v. State of Bihar, exposed the brutalities of the Police. Newspaper report revealed that about 33 suspected criminals were blinded by the police in Bihar by putting the acid into their eyes. Through interim orders Supreme Court directed the State government to bring the blinded men to Delhi for medical treatment. It also ordered speedy prosecution of the guilty policemen. The court also read right to free legal aid as a fundamental right of every accused. Anil Yadav signalled the growth of social activism and investigative litigation.
- In 1982, the Supreme Court in its far- reaching decision in the case of PUDR People’s Union for Democratic Rights vs. Union of India, it recognised that a third party could directly petition, whether through a letter or other means, the Court and seek its intervention in a matter where another party’s fundamental rights were being violated. In this case, adverting to the Constitutional prohibition on begar, or forced labor and traffic in human beings, PUDR submitted that workers contracted to build the large sports complex at the Asian Game Village in Delhi were being exploited.
- The Supreme Court in Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay and ors v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors, held that In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice. Thus a private interest case can also be treated as public interest case.
- In the case of M.C Mehta v/s Union of India 1987 – In a Public Interest Litigation brought against Ganga water pollution so as to prevent any further pollution of Ganga water. Supreme court held that petitioner although not a riparian owner is entitled to move the court for the enforcement of statutory provisions , as he is the person interested in protecting the lives of the people who make use of Ganga water.
Significance of PIL
- Affordable legal remedy – In Public Interest Litigation (PIL) vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy because there is only a nominal fixed court fee involved in this.
- Accessibility of justice – This is done by relaxing the traditional rule of locus standi. Any public spirited citizen or social action group can approach the court on behalf of the oppressed classes.
- Addressing larger public issues – through the so-called PIL, the litigants can focus attention on and achieve results pertaining to larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, consumer welfare and environment.
- Instrument of social change – PIL is working as an important instrument of social change. It is working for the welfare of every section of society. PIL has been used as a strategy to combat the atrocities prevailing in society. It’s an institutional initiative towards the welfare of the needy class of the society. In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan Supreme court has laid down exhaustive guidelines for preventing sexual harassment of working women in place of their work.
- Monitoring of state institutions – such as jails, women’s protective homes, juvenile homes, mental asylums, and the like. Through judicial invigilation, the court seeks gradual improvement in their management and administration.
- Checks and balances – Provides a tool in the hands of the judiciary along with enhanced participation of the public to keep tab on executive and administrative actions.
- Devising new kind of reliefs and techniques of fact finding – By fashioning new kinds of reliefs under the court’s writ jurisdiction. For example, the court can award interim compensation to the victims of governmental lawlessness. In most of the cases the court has appointed its own socio-legal commissions of inquiry or has deputed its own official for investigation. Sometimes it has taken the help of National Human Rights Commission or Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or experts to inquire into human rights violations.
- Disturbing the constitutional balance of power- Although the Indian Constitution does not follow any strict separation of power, it still embodies the doctrine of checks and balances, which even the judiciary should respect. However, the judiciary on several occasions did not exercise self-restraint and moved on to legislate, settle policy questions, take over governance, or monitor executive agencies.
- Frivolous use – PIL has become a tool for harassment as a result of the large number of insignificant cases that are filed by people with the minimal court fee. Numerous false PILs have been filed to obtain publicity for unworthy causes. Even chief justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud noted that PIL has become tool for harassment and several experts are of opinion that the letter ‘P’ has been substituted for publicity and private as against the original intention of Public.
- Primacy to PIL cases over other cases – The debates over the limits of Judicial Activism in the area of PIL, have been vigorous. A private members bill entitled “Public Interest Litigation (Regulation) Bill, 1996” was tabled in the Rajya Sabha. The statement of objectives and reasons stated that PIL was misused in the name of providing justice to the poor sections of the society and also that PIL cases were given more priority over other cases which led to pending of several “general section cases” in the court for years. However, the bill was not passed.
- Pendency of PIL cases – Adjudication takes several years as PIL cases further aggravate the challenges of already burdened judiciary.
- Overuse-induced non-seriousness– PIL should not be the first step in redressing all kinds of grievances even if they involve public interest. In order to remain effective, PIL should not be allowed to become a routine affair which is not taken seriously by the Bench, the Bar, and most importantly by the masses. The overuse of PIL for every conceivable public interest might dilute the original commitment to use this remedy only for enforcing human rights of the victimised and the disadvantaged groups. If civil society and disadvantaged groups lose faith in the efficacy of PIL, that would sound a death knell for it.
PIL has an important role to play in the civil justice system in that it affords a ladder to justice to disadvantaged sections of society, some of which might not even be well-informed about their rights. Furthermore, it provides an avenue to enforce diffused rights for which either it is difficult to identify an aggrieved person or where aggrieved persons have no incentives to knock at the doors of the courts. PIL could also contribute to good governance by keeping the government accountable. Last but not least, PIL enables civil society to play an active role in spreading social awareness about human rights, in providing voice to the marginalized sections of society, and in allowing their participation in government decision making.
Plausible solution lies in introspection and exercise of rationality by the various stake holders. Firstly judiciary must exercise caution and restrain while entertaining the PILs , i.e. PILs should be admitted only when they comply with the guidelines of the SC. Frivolous PILs should be discouraged and penalised. There is need for sensitization of the lawyers and social activists too. Last but not least executive inaction creates space for such judicial activism so if the concern is blurring of the separation of power, executive must also act proactively.