Public Interest Litigation

This article has been written by Siddiqua Abdullah, pursuing a SEBI Grade A Legal Officers’ Test Prep Course and has been edited by Oishika Banerji (Team Lawsikho). 

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


PIL or Public Interest Litigation signifies a chief instrument through which the concept of judicial activism is established as it facilitates exercising of writ jurisdiction by high courts or the Supreme Court of India to safeguard the fundamental and legal rights of the citizens of India at large. The concept of PIL emerged in the United States of America for the first time. But as far as India is concerned, it emerged in the 1980s and its pioneers are J. PN Bhagwati and J. Krishna Iyer. As the name of the litigation suggests, the same is meant for safeguarding public interest which gets affected by pollution, terrorism, road safety, etc. One of the prime necessities of a PIL is the party filing the same has to do so in public interest and has to satisfy the court on similar grounds as well. This article is meant for discussing the origin and development of PIL in India.  

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Significance of PIL in India 

There are many reasons why PIL was introduced in India but its main purpose is to make justice available to people who are poor and marginalised. It has become a very important tool as it provides justice to those who cannot file petitions on their own because of many reasons like illiteracy, illegal detention, poverty etc. Because of the concept of public interest litigation, the Indian judicial system has become more active. It has also increased the interdependence of the judiciary because even the courts can suo moto initiate a matter in the court of law. PIL not only provides justice to a single person but to a class of aggrieved persons. Also the cases of public interest litigation are given preference over other ordinary cases as these cases are related to a large number of people.

Evolution of PIL through judicial precedents 

As PIL is a procedural concept, understanding the same cannot be limited to subjective discussions only. Therefore in order to understand the origin and growth of PIL in India, a look to the judicial precedents need to be made. 

Mumbai Kamgar Sabha  v.  Abdulbhai Faizullabhai [1976 AIR 1455, 1976 SCR (3) 591]

This case is considered to be one of the most important cases of PIL. In the 1960s there was a union of workers in Maharashtra known as Mumbai Kamgar Sabha. The business organisation for which the workers worked was owned by Abdulbhai and Faizullabhai. From 1965 the business organisation stopped the yearly bonus of the workers. The Mumbai Kamgar Sabha filed a petition on behalf of the workers against the organisation. Justice K. Iyer had held that as the matter had affected a number of people from the weaker section, the Union was eligible to file a petition on behalf of the aggrieved class. Hence, the principle of locus standi was relaxed for the first time thereby leading to the origin of PIL in this country.

Hussainara Khatoon & Ors v. Home Secretary, Bihar [1979 AIR 1369, 1979 SCR (3) 532]

In 1979, an article about Bihar’s undertrial prisoners was published in the newspaper. They were in jail for a long time and were going through lots of hardships. Some prisoners had committed very minor offences for which they were in jail for a long time and some had to even exceed the time in detention, in comparison to what the court had ordered. There were 17 undertrial prisoners and Hussainara Khatoon was one of them. Advocate Hingorani represented under-trial prisoners. She filed the writ petition on behalf of the victims against the State of Bihar. The State was directed to present the list of undertrial prisoners before the Apex Court. 

The bench in this case consisted of  J. P N Bhagwati, J. R S Pathak and J. A D Koshal, who delivered the judgement in favour of  the petitioner. The court ordered to release the prisoners whose names were mentioned in the petitioner’s list and held that their imprisonment was illegal and violative of  fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. Thus, the right to speedy trial was included under Article 21 thereby widening the scope of the same in the Indian Constitution.

Fertilizer Corporation  Kamgar  v.  Union Of  India & Ors [1981 AIR 344]

Until 1981, though courts had dealt with the concept of PIL, it was in  Fertilizer Corporation  Kamgar  vs  Union Of  India & Ors [1981], where the court of law first explained the term “Public Interest Litigation”. The Hon’ble Supreme Court had observed,                                        that law as is conceived as a social auditor and audit function can be put into action only when someone with real public interest ignites the jurisdiction. It was further observed that PIL is a part of participatory justice and must have liberal reception at the judicial doorsteps, which means the relationship between the parties is not hostile like other traditional cases.

Pt. Parmanand  Katara  v. Union  Of  India & Ors [1989 AIR 2039]

On the basis of a newspaper report the petitioner, who was a social activist, filed petition on behalf of  a person who met with an accident but later died because the nearest hospitals refused to admit him and referred him to a hospital located around 20 km away, which had the authority to handle medico-legal cases.

The court observed  that it is the duty of the State under Article 21 to protect the lives of people.  Also legal professionals and people who are related should keep a check that any medical professional is not being troubled or put into problems in any way. The law or State’s action should not interfere in the proceedings of hospitals and allow the medical professionals to do their duty without any interruption. The laws which are an obstacle in carrying out the duties of doctors and people concerned with it, should not be followed.  This case is an example of  participatory justice that is where all the entities cooperate with each other for the welfare of the public.

 S.P  Gupta v. Union  Of  India &  Anr [1989 AIR 149]

It was held that any person acting pro bono public and who is not a meddlesome interloper can approach the Honourable high courts and the Supreme Court directly in any case if the constitutional or fundamental rights of a class of people is violated. So, in this case the petition filed by the advocates of different courts was admitted because the advocates are an integral part of the Indian judicial system. Until S.P Gupta case, courts had been exercising their discretionary powers and relaxing locus standi on case to case basis. By this judgement, relaxation of  locus standi in PIL was fully established and wherever there was legal injury PIL was used to seek justice and thus, it became an important tool for seeking justice. 

Criticism of Public Interest Litigation 

Although the concept of public interest litigation is of great importance, as the time passed people started to exploit it. Many frivolous petitions were and are filed in the name of public interest litigation creating further delay and hindrance in the legal proceedings. People use PIL for publicity which wastes the precious time of the court. Even if the court dismisses such frivolous petitions then also it wastes the court’s time and effort. Sometimes the advocates also use PIL to come into limelight and even political parties use it to fulfil their political agendas. All this leads to the abuse of the concept of Public interest litigation which ultimately increases the burden of our judicial system.


We know that since the 1970s the concept of PIL has been evolving. Even a letter was considered as PIL in cases like Mrs. Veena Sethi vs State Of Bihar & Ors. [AIR 1983 SC 339]. Ever since then the scope of PIL has been widening. As the objective of PIL is to give equal access to justice to everyone in  society, the rigid or traditional view of locus standi has been relaxed to  great extent . Due to this, any person acting pro bono publico has the right to file a PIL on behalf of the aggrieved class. Even the court can suo moto initiate a PIL, the recent example of this is the Gujarat Morbi Bridge Tragedy. In this case when one of the judges of Gujarat read about the incident in a newspaper, he suo moto initiated the matter in court of law. The process of filing PIL is quite simple and cheap which makes it easier for anyone to file it leading to the accumulation of frivolous petitions in the court. So, in order to avoid this exploitation of PIL the courts must be very cautious while admitting a petition. Judges should make sure that the petition is of public interest and not of personal interest.

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