What is Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and How Do We File It?

calendar13 Jan, 2023
timeReading Time: 8 Minutes
What Do You Mean By Public Interest Litigation, And How Do We File It?

Public Interest Litigation is a new jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court through judicial activism. It protects the rights and interests of the less fortunate and weaker members of society who are subjected to oppression on any level, whether it is social, economic, or otherwise, and who are unable to go before the court on their own. It was created in order to guarantee social and economic fairness for these underprivileged and weaker sections.

A public lawsuit known as a public interest litigation requires the petitioner, the State or other public authority, and the court to work together to meet the constitutional duty owed to people who cannot turn to the courts for protection of their legal or constitutional rights. The only question that can exist is whether the petition’s requests, if granted, will uphold these legal or constitutional rights. This was stated by the Supreme Court of India in the case of, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India (AIR 1996 Cal 89).

This article discusses various aspects of Public Interest Litigation and Article 32, including its historical perspective and other essential elements you must know before filling it.

Historical Perspective and Growth of PIL in India

Abram Chayes, an American professor, coined the term “public law litigation” in 1976 to refer to the work of attorneys or other civic-minded persons who attempt to alter the law, uphold the law, or establish public standards through court-ordered judgements.

On November 26, 1949, Indian citizens adopted the Constitution, with the goal of establishing a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic.” By creating the Constitution, the founding fathers hoped to bring about a social revolution. The sections dealing to Fundamental Rights (as mentioned under Part III of the Indian Constitution) and the Directive Principles of State Policy are the principal instruments used to bring about such social transformation (as mentioned under Part IV of the Indian Constitution). By establishing a constitutional remedy mechanism for enforcing these rights through an independent court, the Fundamental Rights are given their full extent. The remedy to approach the Supreme Court directly in case of violation of Fundamental Rights[1] is in itself a Fundamental Right under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. Several reasons both political and legal have contributed in development of Public Interest Litigation.

In India, the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdulbhai (AIR 1976 SC 1455) planted the seeds for the idea of public interest litigation. Public Interest Litigation evolved as a result of the Supreme Court’s active participation in defending fundamental rights during the emergency, notably in the case of ADM Jabalpur (ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla, AIR 1976 SC1207).

The two judges of the Indian Supreme Court, Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer, made tremendous efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to improve access to justice through legal aid, and their work was a major factor in the development of Public Interest Litigation.

The rise of judicial review as a fundamental structure was furthered by Kesavanda Bharati’s introduction of a new constitutional interpretation that protected fundamental constitutional ideals.

Article 32 of the Indian Constitution

“Ubi Jus, Ibi Remedium” is one of the defining principles of Common Law. The sayings goes as, ‘Where there is a right, there is a remedy.’

According to Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, people have the right to petition the Supreme Court for justice if they believe their rights have been “unduly deprived.” Under Article 32, citizens may bring a Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court in the interest of the general good. The court itself may also take up a PIL pursuant to Article 32.

In many instances the Supreme Court has observed that Article 32 provides a “guaranteed” remedy for the enforcement of basic rights in the case of Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras (1950).

  • Some Landmark Judgements in regard to Public Interest Litigation

The roots of public interest litigation were sowed in India by Justice Krishna Iyer in the case of Mumbai Kamagar Sabha v. Abdul Thai (1976).

Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar (1979 AIR 1369) was the first PIL case to be publicly reported.

In the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India (1981), Justice P.N. Bhagawati signalled the beginning of a new phase in the PIL movement.

While delivering the judgment in the case of Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay and Ors. v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors (2004) the Supreme Court ruled that, in a case, where the petitioner has moved to the court for the redressal of a personal grievance, but if the court thinks it as a necessity to enquire in the state affairs for the interest of public justice, than the court can convert the particular matter into a public interest matter.

Factors That Are Responsible For the Growth of PIL in India

The concept of PIL was envisioned by the makers of our Constitution. But as a society, we have evolved a lot from independence, so the law related to Public Interest litigation. There have been many factors which played an essential role in the growth, and these are as follows. 

There are a lot factors which are responsible for the

  • The character of the Indian Constitution. The written constitution of India offers a framework for governing relations between the state and its citizens as well as between citizens themselves in Part III (it talks about the Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (it talks about the Directive Principles of State Policy).
  • In terms of bonded labour, minimum salaries, land ceilings, environmental protection, etc., India has some of the most advanced social laws in the whole world. This has made it simpler for the courts to hold the administration accountable when it fails to uphold the rights of the poor in accordance with the law of the state.
  • It has aided that the locus standi principle be interpreted liberally, allowing anybody to petition the court on behalf of persons who are physically or financially unable to appear in person. On the basis of media stories or correspondence they had received, judges have occasionally started suo actions themselves.
  • Despite the fact that the social and economic rights outlined in Part IV of the Indian Constitution are not legally enforceable, but the courts have imaginatively interpreted these rights to include basic rights, so that they can be judicially enforceable. For instance, the “Right to life” under Article 21 has been widened to encompass the right to free legal assistance, the right to a life of dignity, the right to education, the right to employment, the freedom from torture, the prohibition of the use of handcuffs and bar fetters in jails, etc.
  • Legal developments to support the underprivileged and marginalised: For instance, in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case (1984 AIR 802), the Supreme Court placed the burden of evidence on the respondent, noting that until the employer could show otherwise, it would regard every occurrence of forced labour as an instance of bonded labour. Similar to this, Justice P.N. Bhagwati ruled in the Asiad Workers case that anyone earning less than the minimum wage can file a direct appeal with the Supreme Court without going via the labour commissioner or lower courts.
  • Courts have created commissions to gather information on the facts and bring it before the bench in PIL instances where the petitioner is not in a position to give all the requisite evidence, either because it is extensive or because the parties are weak socially or economically.

Guidelines for Filling a Public Interest Litigation

Letters/postcards/ petitions filed for the following reasons will only be considered as PILs and will be entertained by the courts:

  • Matters related to neglected children.
  • Petition filed regarding the non-payment of minimum wages to the workers and their exploitation
  • Petition filed regarding the violation of labour laws. (This does not include individual cases)
  • Petition filed for the speedy trials of the convicts. 
  • Petition filed for seeking release after completing the term of 14 years of imprisonment. 
  • Petition filed against police for not registering a case or police harassment or death of the person during the police custody. 
  • Petition filled particularly for the matters related to crime against women, bride burning, rape, murder, etc. 
  • Petition filed for mater related to environmental pollution, disturbance of ecological balance, drugs, food adulteration, maintenance of heritage and culture, antiques, forest and wild life 
  • Petition filled by riot -victims.

Who All Can File A PIL in India?

The following persons can file a Public Interest Litigation for the above the reasons:

  • Any citizen can file a PIL under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, in the Supreme Court of India.
  • Any citizen can file a PIL under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution, in the High Courts of India.
  • Any citizen can file a PIL under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) of 1973 in the Court of Magistrate.

It can also be in a form of letter, addressed by the aggrieved party, or a public-spirited individual, or a social action group for the enforcement of a legal or constitutional rights on the behalf of any person who is unable to approach the court for redressal. Nevertheless, the court has to see that the Writ petition satisfies all the basic requirements for a Public Interest Litigation.

An action for public interest may be brought against the State or Central Government, municipal authorities, but not a private individual. The definition of a “state” is the same as that in Article 12 of the Constitution, and it covers the Indian Government, the Indian Parliament, the governments and legislatures of each of the States, as well as any local or other authorities operating within the Indian Territory or under the control of the Indian Government.

Cases That Do Not Fall Under the Ambit of Public Interest Litigation

Before filling a PIL, it is important to understand the nature of the case, and whether it is eligible to be filed under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution. Following is the list of matters which does not fall under the ambit of Public Interest Litigation in India:

  • Cases related to landlord-Tenant matters.
  • Cases related to service matters, pension and gratuity.
  • Petitions relating to the early hearing of cases pending in High Courts and Subordinate Court

How to File a Public Interest Litigation in India?

A person must be a citizen of India to file a Public Interest Litigation, and the PIL must only be filed for a cause of public welfare.

Some significant considerations to bear in mind when preparing a PIL are as follows:

  • First and foremost, the step is to consult an advocate who will provide you with the legal guidance and also help you in filling it. 
  • Make sure you have all the essential documents, such as photographic evidences (if any) copy of the notice, ID verification, etc.
  • Information regarding all the aggrieved parties.
  • A list of all the respondents with their names and address. 
  • A detailed information of all the events that have occurred.
  • Also, mention how the fundamental rights have been violated.
  • The PIL must mention the help that the aggrieved parties want to seek from the court.

Can a letter be treated as Public Interest Litigation in India?

Yes, there are many instances where the Supreme Court has considered a newspaper cutting or a letter as PIL and initiated the proceedings. A simple letter or a postcard that has been addressed to the Chief Justice of India or the Chief Justice of a High Court of India is sufficient for the court to take cognizance of the letter and convert it into a Public Interest Litigation.

Some of the instances where the Indian Courts took the cognizance on simple letters for the welfare of the public at large, and turned them into a Public Interest Litigations:

  • The first instance was in the case of Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of Uttar Pradesh (AIR 1989 SC 594); in this particular case the Hon’ble Supreme Court converted a letter that raised the issue of unauthorised and illegal mining in the hills of Mussoorie into a writ petition under ambit of Public Interest Litigation.
  • Another such example is, Shri D.K. Basu, Ashok K. Johri v. State of West Bengal, State of U.P (1997 (1) SCC 416)
  • Another leading case where the Hon’ble Court considered a newspaper cutting as PIL, was in the case of Hindustan times v. Central Pollution Board (2000) 10 SCC 587).


The goal of Public Interest Litigation is to advance the public interest, which requires that a significant number of people who are impoverished, oppressed, uneducated, and socially or economically disadvantaged have their legal or constitutional rights upheld. The Indian Constitution’s Article 32 permits the practice of public interest litigation. A PIL is an exception to the rule of ‘locus standi’, which states that only the aggrieved person whose rights have been violated has the power to move the court for the remedy.

Read Our Article: Public Interest Litigation (PIL): Things You Need To Know

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