Legal

What is Public Interest Litigation and How Do You File It?

calendar27 Apr, 2023
timeReading Time: 10 Minutes
What is Public Interest Litigation and How Do You File It?

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a term used to describe litigation that seeks to ensure the rights and interests of the public. The concept of PIL originated in the United States in the early 1960s, and it was quickly adopted by other countries around the world. In India, PILs have become an increasingly important aspect of the country’s legal system. This note will examine the history of PILs in India, the legal framework that governs them, and some of the key cases that have shaped the development of this important legal tool. The use of PIL has been a significant development in the Indian legal system and has enabled citizens to hold the government accountable for its actions.

Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

Public Interest Litigation or PIL is a legal tool that allows individuals, organizations, and other entities to bring to the notice of the court any violation of fundamental rights, societal interests, or legal provisions that adversely affect larger sections of society or the environment. PIL is a form of judicial activism that enables the public to approach the court directly and seek judicial intervention in matters of public interest, without having a personal stake in the matter. The concept of PIL gained prominence in India in the 1980s and has since then become a crucial aspect of Indian Law, promoting social justice and protecting the rights of marginalized communities.

The roots of Public Interest Litigation can be traced back to the United States, where the Supreme Court recognized the significance of litigation in the public interest during the 1960s and 1970s. In India, the Supreme Court first used the concept of PIL in the 1970s when it allowed the filing of a writ petition on behalf of bonded laborers in a brick kiln. However, it was not until the 1980s that PIL grew as a vital tool for social and environmental justice in India, and Supreme Court in several landmark judgments recognized the importance of PIL in protecting the rights of people.

The roots of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) can be too traced back to the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs. Abdul Thai (1976), where the Supreme Court of India held that any public-spirited person or organization can file a petition in the court for the enforcement of fundamental rights. In subsequent years, the apex court has expanded the scope of PIL to cover a range of issues such as bonded labor, corruption, environmental pollution, consumer protection, and education.

Key Factors of PIL   Importance of PIL
Addresses Issues of Public Interest   Protects the Rights of the Public
Access to Justice Gives a voice to the marginalized  
Empowers the Public Promotes Transparency  
Protects Constitutional Rights Ensures Accountability  
Promotes Good Governance Strengthens Democracy  
Aids in Environmental Protection Fosters Social Justice  
Helps Combat Corruption Demands Fairness and Equality  
Safeguards Civil Liberties Upholds the Rule of Law  

Procedures Should Follow by the Petitioner

To file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition, the petitioner has to follow a few basic procedures. A petitioner can write a letter to a judge, bringing the issue to their notice, which can then be treated as a PIL petition. Alternately, the petitioner can file a writ petition in the Supreme Court or the respective High Court. The petition must be in writing and should contain the following information:

  • Name and address of the petitioner
  • Details of the respondents and their addresses
  • Brief summary of the facts and the violation of fundamental rights or legal provisions
  • Details of other petitions filed, if any
  • Prayer for relief sought
  • Signature of the petitioner or their authorized representative.

The petition must also be accompanied by an affidavit, stating the facts mentioned in the petition to be true and correct to the best of the petitioner’s knowledge. The petition must be typed and filed in the court within whose jurisdiction the matter falls. The petitioner can represent themselves or engage a lawyer to represent them in court.

One of the distinctive features of PIL is that the court can issue orders even if the petitioner does not have a direct or personal interest in the matter. This means that a PIL can be filed by anyone who seeks to advance the common good or public interest. The court has wide powers to direct the government and its agencies to take necessary action to address the issue raised in the PIL. For instance, the court can order the closure of polluting industry, provide compensation to affected persons, or direct the government to enact new laws or policies.

PILs and the Indian Legal System

The history of PILs in India can be traced back to the early 1970s, when a group of lawyers began to use the courts to fight for social justice. In 1976, the Supreme Court of India recognized the importance of PILs in a landmark case known as the Hussainara Khatoon case. In this case, the court held that it had a duty to protect the rights of the poor and marginalized, and that PILs were an important way to achieve this goal.

Since then, PILs have become an increasingly important aspect of the Indian legal system. They have been used to challenge government policies, advocate for environmental protection, and promote human rights. In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards the use of PILs to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

In order to understand the legal framework that governs PILs in India, it is important to first understand the concept of locus standi. In traditional Indian law, only someone who is directly affected by a legal dispute has standing to file a case in court. However, in the context of PILs, the courts have relaxed this requirement in order to allow anyone to file a case on behalf of the public interest.

The legal framework that governs PILs in India is primarily found in the Constitution of India and the Code of Civil Procedure[1]. Article 32 of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to issue writs to enforce fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This power has been interpreted to include the power to hear PILs. Article 226 of the Constitution gives the High Courts similar powers.

In addition to the Constitution, there are several key provisions in Indian law that are specifically designed to facilitate the use of PILs. For example, Section 141 of the Code of Civil Procedure allows for the provision of a representative suit. In this type of suit, a group of people who share a common interest can file a case together as a single party.

Section 20 of the Legal Services Authorities Act provides for the establishment of legal aid clinics to provide free legal assistance to marginalized communities. This provision has been particularly useful in facilitating access to justice for the poor and marginalized.

Overall, the use of PILs in India has been an important tool for promoting social justice and protecting the rights of the marginalized. However, there are also concerns about the potential for abuse of this legal mechanism, particularly when it is used by groups with less than pure motives. In order to ensure that PILs continue to be an effective tool for promoting the public interest, it is important for the courts to carefully scrutinize the motives and intentions of those who file them, and to ensure that they are based on sound legal principles and evidence.

However, Public Interest Litigation is not a panacea for solving all the problems of the public. The courts must exercise caution in expanding the scope of PIL and ensure that the petitioner has a genuine concern for the public interest. In recent times, there have been instances where PIL petitions have been misused or filed with ulterior motives. As such, courts have become more cautious in entertaining PIL petitions and have started imposing stricter eligibility criteria for filing PIL.

However, the Public Interest Litigation mechanism is not without its limitations and challenges. One of the major concerns is that PILs can be misused for personal or political gain. There have been instances where PILs have been filed on flimsy grounds or with malicious intent. There have also been cases where PILs have been used to settle personal scores or to harass opponents. This has led to calls for stricter supervision and regulation of PILs to prevent their misuse.

Another limitation of PILs is that they can sometimes bypass the ordinary legal process and the rights of the affected parties. In some cases, PILs have been criticized for taking away the autonomy of local communities and eroding the principles of democratic decision-making. PILs can also be time-consuming and costly, especially for marginalized communities who may not have the resources to pursue legal recourse.

  Definition   Public Interest Litigation (PIL) refers to legal action taken in a court of law for the protection of public interest, often involving matters of social justice and human rights.  
  History   PIL originated in India in the 1970s as a means of bringing public interest issues to the judiciary. It was first introduced by Justice Bhagwati in the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdul Thai in 1976. The concept has since spread to other countries.  
  Purpose   The primary purpose of PIL is to ensure that marginalized and underrepresented groups have access to the judicial process and can seek justice when their rights are violated. PIL is used to address a wide range of issues including environmental protection, worker’s rights, corruption, and discrimination.  
  Key Actors   Key actors in PIL include the judiciary, lawyers, civil society organizations, and affected communities. These actors work together to bring public interest cases before the courts and advocate for the rights of marginalized groups.  
  Criticisms Critics argue that PIL can be used as a means of frivolous litigation and that it can undermine the authority of the executive and the legislature. There have also been concerns that PIL can be used as a means of advancing the interests of the elites rather than those of marginalized groups.  

PIL and Landmark Case Laws

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a term that was introduced in India in the 1980s as a way to involve the judiciary in issues concerning the public good. PILs are filed by individuals or NGOs on behalf of the general public, seeking redressal of grievances or enforcement of fundamental rights. Since its inception, PIL has been an important tool for improving governance, protecting human rights, and promoting social justice in India

  • Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360)

One of the earliest and most significant PILs in India was the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar (AIR 1979 SC 1360). In this case, the Supreme Court took suo-motu cognizance of the plight of under-trial prisoners who were languishing in jail for years without trial. The Court held that the right to speedy trial is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, and directed the release of all under-trial prisoners who had been in jail for more than the maximum punishment for their alleged offences. This case set a precedent for the use of PIL to protect the fundamental rights of marginalized sections of society.

  • MC Mehta v. Union of India (AIR 1987 SC 965)

Another important PIL was the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (AIR 1987 SC 965). This case was filed by environmentalist MC Mehta to seek the closure of polluting industries in Delhi. The Court took note of the severe air and water pollution in the city and directed the closure of a large number of industries. This case also led to the establishment of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to deal with environmental disputes.

  • Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (AIR 1986 SC 180)

In the case of Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (AIR 1986 SC 180), the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of the right to livelihood of pavement dwellers in Mumbai. The Court held that the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution includes the right to livelihood, and directed the government to provide alternative accommodation to the pavement dwellers before evicting them. This case is significant because it recognized the right to livelihood as a fundamental right and provided a mechanism for protecting the rights of the urban poor.

  • Vishakha v State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997 SC 3011)

The case of Vishakha v State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997 SC 3011) dealt with the issue of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. The Court held that sexual harassment of women violates their fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution, and directed the government to frame guidelines to prevent such harassment. This case is significant because it recognized sexual harassment as a violation of fundamental rights and provided a landmark judgment for the protection of women’s rights in the workplace.

  • Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802)

In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802), the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of bonded labour in India. The Court held that bonded labour is a form of slavery and violates the fundamental rights of the bonded labourers under Articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution. The Court directed the government to take steps to eradicate bonded labour and provide rehabilitation and compensation to the victims. This case is significant because it recognized bonded labour as a gross violation of human rights and provided a legal framework for its eradication.

  • Keshavananda Bharati v State of Kerala (AIR 1973 SC 1461)

In the case of Keshavananda Bharati v State of Kerala (AIR 1973 SC 1461), the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of the limits of the amending power of the Parliament under the Constitution. The Court held that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be amended by the Parliament, and provided a landmark judgment for the protection of the Constitution and the separation of powers.

  • Minerva Mills v Union of India (AIR 1980 SC 1789)

In the case of Minerva Mills v Union of India (AIR 1980 SC 1789), the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of the balance of power between the judiciary and the legislature. The Court held that the Constitution reflects a delicate balance of power between the three organs of the state – the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature – and that the judiciary has the power of judicial review to ensure that this balance is maintained. This case is significant because it recognized the importance of the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary in protecting the Constitution.

  • ADM Jabalpur v Shivkant Shukla (AIR 1976 SC 1207)

In the case of ADM Jabalpur v Shivkant Shukla (AIR 1976 SC 1207), the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of the emergency powers of the government during the Emergency period in India (1975-77). The Court held that the right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution can be suspended during an emergency, and that the government’s actions cannot be challenged in the court. This case is significant because it led to a public outcry and highlighted the importance of judicial independence and the protection of fundamental rights during times of crisis.

Conclusion

In conclusion, PIL is a powerful tool for promoting public interest and holding the government accountable. It has helped in addressing a range of issues that affect the lives of ordinary people in India. However, PILs should be filed judiciously and with a genuine concern for public interest. PIL should not be used as a substitute for democratic decision-making or as a means of settling personal scores. The judiciary and the legal system should strive to strike a balance between the needs of the community and the rights of the individuals. PIL should be seen as a means to advance the public good rather than a tool for individual gain. The judiciary, through PIL, has been able to ensure accountability and transparency in governance and bring relief to the public at large.

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

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