Legal

Origin and Meaning of Public Interest Litigation in India

calendar04 May, 2023
timeReading Time: 10 Minutes
Origin and Meaning of Public Interest Litigation in India

Public Interest Litigation is a powerful tool that has been successfully used in India to bring about positive change in society. Public Interest Litigation, commonly known as PIL, is a legal mechanism that allows any citizen or organisation to file a case in court on behalf of an individual or group of individuals and seek legal remedies for public interest issues. Unlike traditional litigation, which resolves disputes between two parties, PIL is a type of litigation focused on larger societal issues that affect the public at large.

Origin and Evolution of PIL

The origin of PIL can be traced back to the 1960s in the United States, where it was first introduced as a means to provide legal aid to underprivileged sections of society. PIL not only provided legal aid to the poor but also helped raise public awareness on various social issues. Several nations have adopted this idea, though with some variations in its application.

In India, the concept of PIL was first introduced in the case of Hussainara Khatoon vs. the State of Bihar in 1979. In this case, a group of lawyers filed a case on behalf of several undertrial prisoners who had been in jail for over five years without any trial. The court took up the case and passed a landmark judgement, ordering the release of all undertrial prisoners who had been languishing in jail for several years without trial. This judgement gave a new dimension to the concept of PIL in India.

After the Hussainara Khatoon case, PIL became a powerful tool for public interest litigation in India. PIL opened up new avenues for citizens to directly approach the court for redressal of their grievances. PIL has been used successfully in India in several cases related to environmental protection, protection of human rights, women’s rights, and judicial reforms.

The Supreme Court’s relaxation of the standing requirements has also made filing PILs easier in India. Normally, only a person who is directly and personally affected by a legal dispute can file a case in court. But in PIL cases, a person who has no direct stake in the dispute can also approach the court if he or she believes that the dispute affects the public at large.

PIL has been seen as a means of empowering the powerless and giving voice to marginalised groups. It has allowed individuals to seek justice against powerful corporations or government entities. It has also been seen as a way to hold the government accountable for its actions or inactions.

The impact of PIL on Indian law has been significant. PIL has led to the development of new laws and policies to address various social, economic, and environmental issues. It has also been used to challenge the constitutional validity of certain laws or government actions.

In addition to PIL, Indian law also recognises the rights of individuals to pursue legal action for their personal grievances. The right to access justice is enshrined in the Constitution of India and is a fundamental right. Individual rights can be enforced through various legal mechanisms, such as civil suits, criminal complaints, or appeals.

Concept of PIL

The concept of PIL was introduced in India to ensure that justice is accessible to every citizen of the country, irrespective of their socio-economic status. It allows any person or organisation to raise issues that require immediate attention and provide legal remedies for them. This means that any person, whether rich or poor, can approach the courts to protect the interests of the public at large, even if they do not have a direct personal interest in the matter.

The concept of individual rights is particularly important in India, given its diverse and complex social fabric. Individual rights can be seen as a means of protecting the rights of individuals who belong to minority groups or who face discrimination or social exclusion.

The meaning of public interest litigation is quite broad and encompasses a wide range of issues. PIL can be filed in matters related to pollution, environmental degradation, public health, human rights, consumer protection, women’s rights, and many other issues that affect the common people. The objective of PIL is to ensure that the rights of the people are protected and their grievances are redressed.

Despite the positive impact of PIL, there are also concerns about its misuse. Some PILs are seen as frivolous or motivated by personal gain rather than the public interest. There are also concerns about the increasing number of PILs filed, which can lead to the clogging of the judicial system.

One of the primary objectives of PIL is to provide access to justice for the poor and marginalised sections of society who cannot afford to hire a lawyer or approach the courts due to financial constraints. PIL has helped to address various issues related to human rights violations, environmental degradation, and other social issues that affect the poor and marginalised sections of society.

Another significant advantage of PIL is that it provides a platform for citizens to participate in the legal system and engage with issues that are important to them. PIL has helped to create awareness among the public about their rights and encouraged them to participate in the legal system to seek justice.

The Supreme Court of India has played a vital role in establishing the concept of PIL in India. The court has widened the scope of public interest litigation, and many landmark judgements have been passed through PIL. The court has also introduced the concept of ‘continuing mandamus’, which means that the court can direct the government to take action on an issue and monitor the progress of the same until the issue is resolved.

Legal Aspects of PIL

The legal system in India provides various provisions and Acts for filing public interest litigation.

The Constitution of India

The Indian Constitution provides various provisions that enable citizens to file public interest litigation, primarily under Part III of the Constitution, which is dedicated entirely to Fundamental Rights. This part of the constitution was included to ensure that the citizens are provided with certain basic rights that the government is obligated to protect. Some of the fundamental rights that citizens can use to file PILs include the right to life and personal liberty, the right to equality and equal protection of laws, and the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908

The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (CPC) has given a significant role to Public Interest Litigation. The mechanism for filing Public Interest Litigation under the CPC is known as “representative suits.” According to Section 12 of the CPC, any person can file a suit on behalf of others as well as for their own benefit. The representative party must have a direct interest in the suit, and the accounts of the parties must be actively different. In cases where the suit application is frivolous, vexatious, or where the object of the suit is unlawful, the court may not permit the suit to proceed. The court also has the power to permit the withdrawal of the suit if it is not in the public interest to proceed with it.

The Public Interest Litigation Techniques Act, 1986

The Public Interest Litigation Techniques Act, of 1986 was enacted to make PILs more extensive and effective in India. According to this Act, a person who is not a party to the proceedings can express any opinion, intervene, or participate in the proceedings. The Act also limits the expenses and fees that can be incurred in public interest litigation. This provision was included to ensure that the cost of litigation in public interest cases does not become a barrier for any individual or group seeking justice.

The Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987

The Legal Services Authorities Act of 1987 is another important piece of legislation governing the filing of PILs in India. It provides for the establishment of Legal Aid Committees to extend free legal aid to the weaker sections of society, including women, children, and those that belong to the marginalised sections of society. The object of this legislation is to ensure that public interest cases are not restricted to only those who can afford to pay for legal representation but also to those who cannot.

The Indian Environmental Laws

The Indian Environmental Laws, including the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, provide for various provisions that enable citizens to file PILs against violators of environmental laws. These acts further provide for penalties and fines for individuals and companies that violate environmental laws.

The Consumer Protection Act, 1986

The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 also provides for the filing of public interest litigation. This Act empowers consumers to file PILs against companies or individuals who sell goods or services that are defective or unsafe. The Act provides for a penalty for violators and further enables consumers to receive compensation for damages suffered as a result of defective goods or services.

Right to Information Act, 2005

One of the most significant examples of individual rights in Indian law is the Right to Information Act of 2005. This Act allows individuals to access information held by public authorities and has been seen as a means of promoting transparency and accountability in government.

Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

Another example is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005[1]. This Act recognises the right of women to live free from violence and abuse and provides for a range of legal remedies and protections.

Role of PIL

Role of PIL in Protecting Fundamental Rights

The Constitution of India guarantees fundamental rights to all citizens. The fundamental rights include the right to equality, the right to life and personal liberty, the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to education, and the right to work. PIL has played a significant role in protecting the fundamental rights of citizens.

The landmark judgment passed by the Supreme Court in the case of People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs. Union of India, commonly known as the “Right to Food” case, is a classic example of how PIL can be used to protect fundamental rights. In this case, the Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance of a newspaper report that highlighted the high rates of malnutrition among children in the state of Rajasthan.

The court passed an order directing the government to provide food to the affected children and to implement various schemes to eradicate malnutrition. Following the judgement, the government of India launched several initiatives, including the Integrated Child Development Services, which has been successful in reducing malnutrition in the country. Thus, this judgement underscores the pivotal role that PIL can play in securing the fundamental rights of citizens.

Role of PIL in Environmental Protection

PIL has played a significant role in environmental protection in India. The Supreme Court has passed several landmark judgements in PIL cases related to environmental protection. The cases of Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India and MC Mehta vs. Union of India are classic examples of how PIL can be used to protect the environment.

In the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum case, the Supreme Court passed a judgement directing the closure of several industrial units that were polluting the environment in the state of Tamil Nadu. In the MC Mehta case, the Supreme Court passed a judgement directing the closure of several polluting industries in Delhi and ordering the government to take measures to reduce vehicular pollution.

PIL has been instrumental in creating awareness among the public on environmental issues and has encouraged the government to adopt various measures for environmental protection. PIL has played an important role in the development of environmental jurisprudence in India.

Role of PIL in Women’s Rights

PIL has been a powerful tool in protecting the rights of women in India. In several cases, PIL has been used to provide justice to women who have been subjected to violence or discrimination. The Vishaka Guidelines, which provide guidelines for preventing sexual harassment of women in the workplace, were the result of a PIL filed in the Supreme Court.

Landmark Case Laws

Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a legal mechanism that enables individuals or NGOs to approach courts in order to address issues of public interest. PIL has gained significant attention in India since the 1980s, following the landmark case of Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360). The case was filed on behalf of undertrial prisoners who had been languishing in jails for a prolonged period without any trial.

In Hussainara Khatoon, the Supreme Court of India treated the letter addressed by the prisoners as a writ petition and held that the public interest litigation could be filed by an individual or a group of individuals on behalf of the underprivileged, exploited, or oppressed classes of society, who cannot approach courts for relieving their grievances.

S. P. Gupta v. Union of India

The development of PIL in India is primarily attributed to Justice P.N. Bhagwati, who is considered the father of PIL. In the case of S. P. Gupta v. Union of India (AIR 1982 SC 149), Justice Bhagwati observed that PIL has become an important tool in the hands of public-spirited citizens for securing justice for the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society.

In this case, a PIL was filed in relation to the appointment of judges to the higher judiciary by the Executive. In order to ensure judicial independence, the Supreme Court stated that the Judicial Commission should be the body responsible for appointing judges. 

Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India

In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802), Justice Bhagwati stated that the concept of PIL has opened the doors of the court to the poor and the downtrodden sections of society who cannot afford to approach the courts for justice.

This case was filed on behalf of the bonded labourers who were working in brick kilns in Uttar Pradesh. The Supreme Court issued guidelines for the effective implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, so as to improve the condition of bonded labourers.

MC Mehta v. Union of India

This case was filed in relation to the pollution caused by industries in the river Ganga. The Supreme Court issued directions for the protection and preservation of the river Ganga, including the closure of polluting industries.

People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India

This case was filed in relation to the custodial deaths of undertrial prisoners in the jails of Delhi. The Supreme Court issued guidelines on the treatment of prisoners in custody.

Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan

This case was filed in relation to the sexual harassment of women at the workplace. The Supreme Court issued guidelines for the prevention and redressal of sexual harassment at the workplace.

Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation

This case was filed in relation to the eviction of pavement dwellers in Mumbai. The Supreme Court held that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution includes the right to livelihood and ordered the authorities to provide alternative accommodations to the pavement dwellers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Public Interest Litigation has proven to be an effective tool for the protection of the rights and interests of Indian citizens. The Indian legal system has put in place various provisions and acts that enable citizens to use PILs effectively. It is important that citizens who believe their rights have been infringed upon or who wish to protect the greater public interest understand these provisions and seek legal recourse. Ultimately, this will ensure that the rule of law prevails and ensure the protection of all citizens. Thus, public interest litigation has played a significant role in bringing social justice and legal reform to India. It has provided access to justice for the poor and marginalised sections of society and created awareness among the public about their rights. PIL has become an indispensable tool for addressing issues that affect the common people, and it has helped to bring about a positive change in society. However, there is a need to ensure that the concept of a PIL is not misused and that it is filed with the genuine intention of seeking justice and protecting the interests of the public at large.

Read Our Article: Public Interest Litigation For An Individual

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