PIL means litigation filed for the protection of “Public Interest”, like Pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, Constructional hazards, etc. Any matter where the interest of the public at large is affected is often redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation. The expression ‘Public Interest Litigation’ has been borrowed from American jurisprudence, where it had been designed to supply representation to previously unrepresented like the poor, the racial minorities, unorganized consumers, citizens who were hooked into the environmental issues, etc.
Public interest litigation is the power given to the general public by courts. The person filing the petition must convince the court that the petition is being filed for public interest and not for personal reasons.
The court itself may take suo moto cognizance of the cases may commence on the petition of any public-spirited person.
Some of the matters which are considered under PIL are:
- Bonded Labour matters
- Neglected Children
- Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of workers.
- Atrocities on women
- Environmental pollution and disturbance of ecological balance
- Food adulteration
- Maintenance of heritage and culture
Origin and Evolution of PIL in India
The concept of public interest litigation was introduced for the first time in India by Justice Krishna Iyer, in 1976 in the case of Mumbai Kamagar Sabha v. Abdul Thai.
The first-ever reported case of Public Interest Litigation was Hussainara Khatoon v. the State of Bihar (1979) that focused on the inhumane conditions of prisons and under trials, which led to the acquittal of about 40,000 under trials prisoners.
The right to speedy justice emerged as a fundamental right that was not given to those prisoners. A similar set pattern was adopted in later cases.
A new period of Public Interest Litigation Movement was started by Justice P.N. Bhagwati in the case of SP Gupta v. Union of India.
Some of the landmark judgments on PIL were:
- Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay & Ors. v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors.
- M.C Mehta v. Union of India.
- Vishaka v. the State of Rajasthan.
Facts Responsible for the Growth of PIL in India
The character of the Indian Constitution: India features a written constitution which through Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) provides a framework for regulating relations between the state and its citizens and between citizens inter-se.
The liberal interpretation of locus standi also means that any person can apply to the court on the behalf of the people who are financially or physically unable to return before they are helped. Judges themselves have in some cases initiated suo moto action supporting newspaper articles or letters received.
Although social and economic rights given within the Indian Constitution under Part IV aren’t legally enforceable, courts have creatively read these into fundamental rights thereby making them judicially enforceable, for instance, the “right to life” in Article 21 has been expanded to include the right to free legal aid, right to live with dignity, right to education, etc.
Judicial innovations to assist the poor and marginalized: In the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case, the Supreme Court put the burden of proof on the respondent stating it might treat every case of forced labor as a case of bondage unless proven otherwise by the employer. Similarly, in the case of Asiad Workers, Justice P.N. Bhagwati held that anyone getting a wage can approach the Supreme Court directly without going to the labor commissioner and lower courts.
In PIL cases where the petitioner isn’t in a position to supply all the required evidence, either because it’s voluminous or because the parties are weak socially or economically, courts have appointed commissions to gather information on facts and present it before the bench.
Drawbacks Related to Public Interest Litigation
A PIL may give rise to the matter of “competing rights”. When the Court orders the closure of a polluting industry, the rights and interests of the workmen are also being violated as their only source of livelihood is being snatched away from them and this may not be taken into account by the court.
It’s for the reason that people can misuse and file frivolous PILs motivated by personal and selfish reasons or malice, the Courts have reiterated time and again that PIL isn’t “personal interest litigation” for corporate, personal, and political gains. This results in the overburdening of the courts.
In the process of solving socio-economic issues or a drug related to the protection of the environment, the judiciary may in certain cases exercise judicial overreach through the PILs.
There is an inordinate delay within the disposal of PIL cases especially matters involving the poor and disadvantaged. This defeats the entire purpose of speedy justice and dilutes the importance of judgment.
Public Interest Litigation has departed from the normal system of litigation and caused a system that involves initiating an action to enforce the interest of the general public at large. Over the years it’s become a potent tool for the poor, illiterate and underprivileged to possess access to the Courts and seek judicial redress by filing an application under Article 226 to the Supreme Court and Article 32 to the Supreme Court.
Therefore, PIL has democratized access to justice by relaxing the rule of locus standi. Thus, any public-spirited person or social activist or group can now approach the Court on behalf of a particular group or class of persons, especially the oppressed and marginalized. The main reason why PIL has flourished in India is that the Constitution of India through its Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) provides a framework to manage the relationship between the state and the citizens and also between citizens.
The accountability of the government towards the rights and interests of the poor and disadvantaged has increased in PIL within the country. The relaxation of the normal rule of locus standi enables a person to approach the Court and represent those that are socio-economically disadvantaged and unable to get redressal. Therefore, PIL has been a crucial tool in bringing about social change; upholding the Rule of Law enshrined under Article 14, and thereby creating a fragile balance between law and justice.
- Anasuya Mukherjee, Public Interest Litigation- Genesis, and Evolution, https://lawcirca.com/public-interest-litigation-genesis-and-evolution/.
- Public Interest Litigation, https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/public-interest-litigation.
- Rachit Garg, All you need to know about Public Interest Litigation (PIL), https://blog.ipleaders.in/need-know-public-interest-litigation-pil/.
This article is written by Priyanka Choudhary, currently pursuing BALLB from Mody University of Science and Technology, Lakshmangarh, Rajasthan.
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