Public Interest Litigation in India

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) refers to the litigation undertaken for the protection of the public interest. The concept of PIL originated in the 1960s in the USA to provide legal representation to unrepresented groups and interests, including the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, environmentalists, and others. It demonstrates the availability of justice to socially disadvantaged people. PIL is also known as Social Interest Litigation (SIL), Social Action Litigation (SAL), and Class Action Litigation (CAL).

Meaning of Public Interest Litigation

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) means the litigation introduced in a court of law to protect the public interest. Under the PIL, any public-spirited citizen or a social organization could plead on behalf of disprivileged strata or marginal sections of society who can not plead themselves in court because of their poverty, ignorance, or social or economic disadvantaged position. Thus, PIL is filled for the redressal of matters of common grievance and enforcing the rights of other persons.

PIL is not defined in any Indian Statute or any act. The Supreme Court of India has defined it as the legal action initiated in a court of law for enforcing the public/general interest. PIL is necessary for maintaining the rule of law and furthering the cause of justice. The real objective of PIL are as follow:

  • Clarification and Vindication of the rule of law.
  • To make effective justice accessible to the socially and economically weaker section of society.
  • Realization of the fundamental rights.

History of Public Interest Litigation in India

The concept of Public Interest Litigation in India is borrowed from American Jurisprudence. The pioneers of the concept of PIL in India were Justice P. N. Bhagwati (former Chief Justice of India) and Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer.

In 1979, in the famous ‘Hussainara Khatoon case‘, Kapila Hingorani (a female layer) filed a petition in the Supreme Court before a bench of Justice P. N. Bhagwati and secured the release of almost 40000 undertrials from the Bihar Jail. The petition was filed under the prisoner name Hussainara Khatoon and signed by the other detained prisoners of Bihar Jail. The case, therefore, was named the ‘Hussainara Khatoon v/s State of Bihar‘ case. As a result of this successful case, Kapila Hingorani is regarded as the Mother of Public Interest Litigation.

Further, the Supreme court defined the term ‘Public Interest Litigation’ in the Indian context in the “S.P. Gupta v/s Union of India” case.

Significance of Public Interest Litigation

Public interest is part of the judicial activism role of the Supreme Court. It aims to provide the common people access to the courts to obtain legal redressal. The various features of PIL are as follows:

  • PIL is initiated before the court not to enforce the rights of one individual against another other but intends to promote and vindicate the public interest.
  • PIL is an important instrument for social development and accelerating the balance between law and Justice.
  • It is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement to bring justice within reach of poor masses.
  • PIL is undertaken to redress public inquiry, enforce public duty, and protect social, collective, and diffused rights or interests.
  • In a PIL, there is no determination on the adjudication of individual rights.
  • PIL demands that the violation of legal and Constitutional rights of people, who are poor, ignorant, and marginalized should not go unnoticed and unredressed.
  • It is a cooperative effort on the part of the petitioner, the court, and the State/Public authority, to secure the legal/Constitutional rights, benefits, and privileges conferred upon the vulnerable section of society.
  • The inception of PILs assured the enhancement of public participation in the judicial review of administrative action.

Principles of Public Interest Litigation

The Supreme Court of India evolved the following principles regarding Public Interest Litigation:

  • Under Articles 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution, the court can entertain the petition filed by any interested person in the welfare of people who cannot approach the court themselves because of their social and economic disadvantaged position. The Court is constitutionally bound to protect the fundamental rights of such economic and socially disadvantaged people. The Court also directs the state to fulfil its constitutional promises.
  • The court can treat a letter or a telegram as a PIL if it raises issues of public importance, enforcement of the fundamental rights of a large number of people, and functions of States. In such type of case, the court relaxes the procedural laws & laws regarding the pleadings.
  • According to the doctrine of locus standi, only that person can move the court for the remedies whose rights are infringed. But, in the case of PIL, the common doctrine of locus standi is relaxed to enable the court to look into the grievances complained on behalf of poor, illiterate, deprived, or disabled people.
  • Whenever there is an injustice to the number of people, the court will not hesitate to step in to invoke Article 14 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and the International Convention on human rights to provide a reasonable and fair trial.
  • The question as to whether the Principle of Res Judicata or any principles analogous would apply to it depends upon the nature of PIL and the circumstances and facts of the case.
  • In a special situation, the court may appoint a commission or any other body for investigating the allegation and finding out the facts. If the commission takes over a public institution, the court may also direct its management.
  • The court should take utmost care not to transgress its jurisdiction while purporting to protect the people’s rights from being violated. Ordinarily, the High courts should not entertain such writ petition by way of a PIL, which questions the constitutionality or validity of a statute or a statutory rule.
  • Under Article 142 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court has the discretionary power to pass an order or decree, as may be necessary to do complete justice. On the other hand, the High Court may pass an order to do complete justice, but it does not have power akin to those granted under Article 142 of the Constitution.

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