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This article is written by Gurpreet Singh, a student of Faculty of Law, Delhi University. This article deals with the difference between class-action suits and PIL.

Introduction

Let’s delve into the past and take you back to your good old college days when the class representative would help to get your class cancelled on behalf of the collective conscience of students in the class. Now one person representing a collection of people is not a new concept, but if the same concept can be carried forward to be applied to people seeking remedy from the justice system, it would help to save a lot of time, effort and money. This article explores the system of collective representation of people in the court of law and the differences between the already existing systems.

Definitions

Class-action suit

Class-action suit is a system of collective representation born in the United States of America. Generally, an institution of a suit is considered as the onset of civil litigation. On the other hand, class-action suit refers to a suit where a large number of people have suffered a similar injury and are seeking remedy. It can be defined as a lawsuit in which one person or a group of persons file a civil case representing a large number of injured parties actively seeking respite from a common wrong. The collectiveness of people is known as a ‘class’. The number of people that constitute a class can pool in the resources to fight against powerful corporations or individuals.

It relaxes the rule of Locus Standi which mandates that only the person whose legal right has been violated can approach the Court for remedy. Under class-action suits, a single plaintiff known as the lead plaintiff represents all the plaintiffs in the Court of Law. Class-action suits are in usual practice filed in cases of consumer frauds, securities frauds, or employment-related practices and in cases where large scale losses and injuries have been caused due to the use of defective consumer products. Class-action suits can also be filed for motor accident cases as well, where large numbers of people have been injured. 

In the United States, class-action suits were initially governed by Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, specifically, Rule 23. After the initial experiment, the U.S Government Introduced the Action Fairness Act, 2005, which expanded federal jurisdiction over class-action lawsuits where the contested amount exceeds $5 million.

Public interest litigation

Public interest litigation is a maverick renovated by the Supreme Court of India, taking inspiration from the concept of class-actions suits. It can be defined as litigation filed in the Court of Law for protection of the public interest such as pollution, terrorism, extremism. Justice Krishna Iyer is known as the inventor of PIL in India, and Justice P.N Bhagwati is remembered as the torch bearer for PIL. They both passed innumerable judgements that enabled access to justice. PIL, in comparison to class-action suits, not only relaxes the rule of Locus Standi, but it also allows any public-spirited individual to approach the court to present claims of a large number of persons, who cannot approach the Court due to marginalization and ostracization by the society.

It is adverse to the adversarial system followed in traditional litigation where two parties fight tooth and nail to win against the other party. Public Interest litigation is considered the litigation to curb social menace. In a country like India, where illiteracy is high and injustices are institutionalized, Public Interest litigation is the institution, wherein an individual on witnessing a social wrong that affects people on a large scale, can approach the Court with their grievances and the Court with their wisdom will decide their matter within the bounds of the Constitution.

Advantages associated with class-action suit

Mentioned below are advantages of class-action suits:

Low litigation cost

Litigation is an expensive, cumbersome, time consuming, and mentally draining exercise. By pooling in resources, a large number of people collectively involved in class action suits can save a huge amount of costs incurred to fight a litigation battle. 

Wider access to relief

 By pooling in resources, persons collectively save a considerable sum of money that goes towards litigation costs that in totem adds up to the relief granted by the Court.  

Efficiency 

The Judiciary has paucity of time due to the high workload. Rather than dealing with thousands of suits that deal with similar injuries, the Court has to deal with one class-action suit which in turn increases its productivity and efficiency.

Uniformity

The justice system is designed in a way that it is difficult to achieve uniformity. Justice Benjamin Cordozo of the U.S Supreme Court had once remarked that ‘the Constitution of benches should not reflect in judicial pronouncements’. Different people receive different reliefs from different judges. By filing class-action suits, similar placed litigants achieve similar reliefs adding up to achieve uniformity.

Advantages associated with PIL

The advantages of PIL are much similar to that of the class-action suits. PIL is a reinvention of the class-action suits which was introduced keeping in mind socio-economic conditions of our country. Benefits of PIL in context of our conditions are listed below:

Wider public interest

The Public interest can cover any issue plaguing a large number of people in the country if the court deems it fit to be in ‘public interest’. For example, at the end of every year, New Delhi is plagued with air pollution, and the executive slacking off. The Supreme Court on 15 Jan 2020, passed a slew of directions in an PIL to curb the menace of air pollution.

Principle of Locus Standi relaxed

Locus standi refers to the capacity to approach the courts. PIL relaxes the principle of locus standi and allows a person whose rights are not infringed to stand before the courts to present the matter of public interest.

Difference between PIL and a class-action suit

PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION 

CLASS ACTION SUITS 

It has no statutory backing under Indian law, it is essentially an invention by the Indian judges.

It has statutory backing and is governed under US law.

Procedural requirements are relaxed to improve access to justice. 

Procedural requirements are not relaxed. One person presents the claim of others along with his own claim.

Any ‘public-spirited individual’, or the aggrieved can represent an unrepresented section of the society.

A Class-Action Suit is a suit filed by similarly placed individuals against a common wrong. A person whose legal right has been violated presents the matter of similarly affected individuals.

It has a wider outreach as it can be filed in matters of ‘Public Interest’ which can cover within its ambit matters of environment, labour, undertrials, human rights, etc. Anything that the Court views as public interest can be entertained. The court has discretion in exercising these powers.

It has a narrow outreach as it only has specific applications. It is usually filed in consumer frauds, securities frauds, or employment-related malpractices, and also in cases where large scale losses and injuries have been caused due to the use of defective consumer products. There is no concept to serve a wider public interest. 

Relevant case laws in association with PIL

S.P Gupta v. President of India

The Supreme Court observed that, “so far the courts have been used only for the purpose of vindicating the rights of the wealthy and affluent. It is only the privileged classes that have been able to approach the courts for protecting their vested interests. But Through PIL for the first time, the portals of the Court are being thrown open to the poor and downtrodden, the ignorant and the illiterate”. It also remarked that “It may, therefore now be taken as well established that where a legal wrong or legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of a violation of any legal or constitutional right, any member of the public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226, and in case of breach of any fundamental rights of such person or persons, in this Supreme Court under Article 32, seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons”.

MC Mehta v. Union of India

The Supreme Court observed that “law should keep pace with socio-economic norms, where a law of the past does not fit in the present context. The Court should evolve new law in the form of public interest litigation. The Court possesses incidental and ancillary powers that can be exercised to devise news methods especially in enforcing fundamental rights through Public Interest Litigation”.

Guruvayur devaswom Managing Committee v. C.K Ranjan 

The Supreme Court has evolved several principles with respect to PIL that are as follows:

  • The Supreme Court and High Court, under the power vested under Article 32 and 226 respectively, can entertain any plea in respect to any disadvantaged section of the society who is not in a position to come to court because of his disadvantaged position. A societal interested person can also come to the court, fighting for their rights.
  • Whenever there is an issue that involves a large number of people involving violation of their fundamental rights, the court can take action based on any letter or telegram. Therefore, the court can relax the procedural laws for imparting timely justice. 
  • Whenever there is a violation of human rights of a large number, it is the duty of the court to cite principles mentioned in Article 14 and 21, and wherever possible, the International Convention on Human Rights for ensuring no violation happens again.
  • The long-standing rule of locus standi can take the back seat, the court can relax the rule and start to look into complaints by people on behalf of poor, illiterate and marginalised people who cannot stand on their own foot for the right cause.
  • Once the court is satisfied whether prima facie or otherwise, then the court should not allow other parties to raise questions on the maintainability of the suit and the decision of a court to take the matter in its hand.
  • There is no complete denial of fact there is no applicability of procedural laws, but courts decided to be flexible in these rules. The principles of res judicata and principles analogous would be applied demanding the nature of the petition and if the court deems it fit.
  • The court won’t entertain any petition that purely deals with two private parties and are filed for publicity. 
  • If any person has moved towards the court in his personal interest and for his personal grievances, the court can take a holistic outlook while treating the matter and grant remedies that are beneficial for the public good.
  • The court has the power to appoint a commission if it deems that it is necessary to investigate more on the matter or require professional suggestions from that committee.
  • It is the duty of the courts not to step out of their limits and act in an unjust manner. However, if the court feels that it is necessary for doing complete justice, the court can act in any manner if they deem it necessary.
  • In normal course the High Court should avoid entertaining writ petitions in the form of PIL, questioning the constitutional validity of a law or any other statute.

Conclusion

Class-action suits and PILs are much-required innovations in the legal systems to improve the pre-existing traditional methods of litigation. To ensure big corporations, individuals with teeth, do not flee away from the legal system by exploiting the economic vulnerabilities of the poor litigants. These suits provide an opportunity for plaintiffs to seek remedy in a cost-effective and efficient manner. On the other hand, PIL is a renovation to provide better access to justice for individuals belonging from vulnerable sections of society. PIL lays emphasis on the human rights of individuals. It serves a social purpose. A class-action suit promotes remedies for persons affected by a common wrong. Both have their pros and cons, but both provide an alternative to the expensive, time consuming and cumbersome court procedures.

References


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