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This article is written by Srishti Chawla, a 5th-year student at Amity Law School, Noida

Introduction

Ubi Jus, Ibi Idem Remedium is a Latin term which means that where there is a right, there is always a remedy. Legally a right means the standard of permitted action by law. The remedy for enforcement of Rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India is embedded in Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution. It confers power upon the Supreme Court and the High Courts to issue writs in the nature of Prohibition, Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, Certiorari and Quo Warranto. Any person whose right has been infringed can approach the Supreme Court under Article 32 or the High Courts under 226 for the enforcement of such infringed rights. One of the methods adopted for enforcement of such rights is through Public Interest Litigation which was adopted by the Judiciary in the Late 1980s whereby any public-spirited person acting bonafide can come forward to further a cause for a particular class of the society namely the weak, the deprived and the illiterate. Such actions must be public interest and must not be for any personal gains, private profits or political motivation. The judiciary has played an exemplary role in the expansion of Public Interest Litigation by relaxing the rule of locus standi and at the same time had cautioned against the abuse of such relaxation. The Courts through Public Interest Litigation has introduced a new dimension to our public law. It is an instrument that allows citizens to bring corrupts individuals to the public view and secure justice for the common man. With that being said there have also been a lot of petitions filed in private interest rather than the public interest. This constitutes a serious problem where a method adopted for addressing the rights of the poor and the deprived are used more for publicity or private purpose.                                                     

Public Interest Litigation Explained

Public Interest Litigation has its evolution from the U.S.A in the famous case of Gideon vs. Wain Wright(1963) where the Supreme Court of U.S.A acted on a letter of Gideon treating it as a petition and relaxed the procedural law thereby allowing the petitioner to be defended by the State Counsel. Therefore since 1876, Public Interest Litigation had been receiving judicial support as an adversarial system of litigation. The term Public Interest Litigation as per the Council for Public Interest Law is the name which is given to the efforts taken to provide legal representations to certain groups and interests which included the poor, environmentalists, consumers, racial-ethnic minorities and others which were previously unrepresented.

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The Supreme Court of India in the exercise of its writ jurisdiction under Article 32 had entertained a number of cases which complained about the infringement of the Fundamental Rights of individuals, the weak and the oppressed who were unable to take the initiative to defend their own rights. Public Interest Litigation or social litigation was one of the methods adopted by the Supreme Court of India to address the infringement of the rights conferred under Part III of the Constitution. Public Interest Litigation is a legal action intended in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest of the people having a monetary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected. A Public Interest Litigation writ petition could be filed in the Supreme Court under article 32 only if a fundamental right has been infringed but under article 226, a writ petition can be filed in the High Court whether or not a Fundamental Right has been infringed.  

The term Public Interest Litigation was given a broader meaning in S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India(1981) , popularly known as the Judges Transfer Case where it was observed by Justice P.N. Bhagwati that “any member of the public having sufficient interest can maintain an action for judicial redress for public injury arising from breach of public duty or from violation of some provision of the constitution or the law and seek enforcement of such public duty and observance of such constitutional or legal provision”. Furthermore, the doctrine of locus standi was relaxed in the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs. Abdulbhai(1976). It was observed that such relaxation was an absolute essential for the maintenance of rule of law thereby furthering the cause of justice and accelerating the pace of realization of the constitutional perspective.

In Janata Dal vs. H.S. Chowdhury(1992) , it was observed that the strict rule of locus standi which was applicable to private litigation was relaxed and a broad rule was evolved which gave the right of locus standi to any member of the public acting bonafide and having sufficient interest in instituting an action for the redressal of public injury or public wrong. In Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India(1983), it was observed that Public Interest Litigation is not in the nature of adversary litigation but is a challenge and an opportunity to the Government and its officers to make basic human rights meaningful to the deprived and vulnerable sections of the community and to assure the social and economic justice which is the basic motive of the Constitution.

The Court went on to observe that in the words of Art.32 (1), there was no limitation that the fundamental right infringed must belong to the person moving to the court. The Court further observed that the principle underlying public interest litigation was that where a person or a class of persons to whom a legal injury had been caused by the reason of violation of a Fundamental Right is unable to approach the Court for judicial redress on account of poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position, any member of the public acting pro bono can move the Court for relief under Article 32 and 226 so that the Fundamental Rights may become meaningful not only for the rich and the well to do who have the means to approach the Court but also for the large masses of people who are living a life of misery and poverty and who are by reason of lack of awareness and resources unable to seek judicial relief.

Development and Expansion of Public Interest Litigation

The landmark innovation of Public Interest Litigation was an important contribution of Judicial Activism and the role of the judiciary had expanded considerably with the help of Public Interest Litigation. As observed by Justice Bhagwati, “it is the duty of the Court to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights.”Since then the courts have been flooded by PIL’S. In Hussainara Khatoon vs. the State of Bihar(1979), the Court declared that the accused’s right to speedy trials and free legal aid is contained as a right under article 21 of the Constitution of India. In D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal(1996), the Supreme Court issued detailed guidelines for arrest and detentions of persons and severely criticized the instances of Custodial Death and regarded it to be one of the Worst Crimes in a Civilised Society to be governed by the Rule of Law.

In Sheela Barse vs. Union of India(1988), the Court directed the State Government to set up necessary remand houses and observation homes where children accused of an offence could be accommodated pending investigation and trial. With the expansion of the locus standi rule, more cases relating to other social issues came to be filed in the Court. The emergence of Public Interest Litigation led to other landmark innovations and has become a potential weapon for enforcement of public duties resulting out of public injury. This also led to the evolution of the Epistolary jurisdiction of the Indian Supreme Court which is a unique feature of Indian Supreme Court and means that mere letters addressed to the Court can be treated as a writ petition in cases where there is a gross violation of fundamental rights.

Public Interest Litigation has played an exemplary role in the area of environmental protection as well. During the period from 1985 onwards, an era of litigation for environment protection commenced with the need for protecting and preserving the environment from degradation and destruction. The Court has observed that apart from economic development, protection of environment and ecosystems are important as well.

In the Oleum Gas Leak Case(1985), a PIL was filed for the closing of Shri Ram Fertilizers from where the oleum gas had leaked. The court here applied the doctrine of absolute liability and stated that any enterprise engaged in any sort of dangerous activity is absolutely liable to compensate all persons who were affected by such gas leak.

In the Taj Trapezium Case(1984), a PIL was filed for the protection of Taj Mahal from the pollution arising out of the industries present within the Taj Trapezium Zone. The Supreme Court ordered the closing down of all the industries functioning within the Taj Trapezium Zone and ordered that the industries functioning within the zone be relocated as per the Agra Master Plan. In the Kanpur Tanneries Case(1985), a PIL was filed regarding the pollution of the river Ganga by the discharge of effluents from tanneries. The Supreme Court ordered that the tanneries be closed down and held that such closing down may cause poverty, unemployment, etc. but the health and safety of the people mattered most. Public Interest Litigation has also played an important role in policymaking. There were numerous PIL’s filed in the Supreme Court whereby certain legislations were enacted for the welfare of the society.

In Vishakha vs. the State of Rajasthan(1997), a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court calling for the need for enacting a law to protect women from sexual harassment and recognition of their rights which are guaranteed to them under the Constitution of India. A three-Judge bench of the Court framed certain guidelines for the protection of women from sexual harassment and these came to be known as the Vishakha Guidelines which prompted the government to enact the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013.  In Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum vs. Union of India(1994), a PIL was filed to uncover the pathetic plight of domestic servants who were subjected to indecent sexual assault by seven army personnel. The Supreme Court has laid down suitable guidelines in this regard to provide amicable assistance to rape victims.

In Shreya Singhal vs Union of India(2015), a PIL was filed regarding the constitutional validity of section 66 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The court struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act stating it to be in violation of article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. In Lily Thomas vs. Union of India(2000), a PIL was filed regarding section 8(4) of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 contending that the said section was in contravention to article 14 of the Constitution. The Court held section 8(4) to be ultra vires to the Constitution and held that any MP, MLA who was convicted of a crime and punished with a term of two years would lose his seat in the house.

Public Interest Litigation makes sure that the rights of the people who are being infringed are restored back. It has also proved to be a strong and effective weapon for enabling the Court to discover several scams and corruption cases that were prevalent in public life and punishing those persons who were guilty of such practices. Not only public-spirited individuals but organizations too have filed numerous PIL’s in the Court requesting inquiry and punishment for those people who bypassed the laws and misused their official position in public life. Public Interest Litigation has made access to justice easier. It has helped the judiciary earn popularity as the saviour of democracy, protector of Rule of Law and became an efficient tool for social transformation. It has also ensured that the legislature and executive do not exercise excessive powers by keeping a check on its functioning thereby upholding the doctrine of Separation of Powers.

Drawbacks of Public Interest Litigation

Public Interest Litigation has played a major role in the justice system of the nation. Yet this has its own drawbacks. Nowadays there is a gross misuse of PIL’s in the country. In S.P. Gupta case, Justice Bhagwati had exercised a note of caution while expanding the rule of locus standi. He observed that the person who is approaching the court to seek a remedy must be acting bonafide and not for any personal gain or private motive or political motives. This made it clear that even though the rules of locus standi were made liberal yet there were chances that it could be misused by persons for their own vested interests. As more and more PIL’s concerning social ailments flooded the Supreme Court and the High Courts, doubts and concerns arose regarding the possibilities of misuse of PIL’s. Many political leaders who were caught in corruption cases have criticized this trend stating that judges deciding PIL’s have crossed the limits of judicial decorum to take over the administration which was beyond the scope of its jurisdiction. Also, the awarding of damages and compensations against the state by the courts were also criticized.

The Government in 1997 enacted the Public Interest Litigation Bill to put a restraint upon PIL. It proposed that any person approaching the Supreme Court or High Court by way of public interest litigation was to deposit Rs. 1 Lakh or Rs.50000 which was to be refunded if the verdict came in favour of the petitioner and will be confiscated if the petition was not allowed. The bill was criticized as it aimed at preventing citizens from resorting to PIL’s and allowing those guilty of financial and other excesses to go scot free. The bill also put a clog on the power of Judicial Review, which is an essential part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution. In Simranjit Singh Mann vs. Union of India(1992), a PIL was filed challenging the conviction and sentencing of the two assassins of General Vaidya on the ground that it violated articles 21, 22 and 14 of the Constitution. The question was whether a third party who a total stranger to the accused has any locus standi to challenge such conviction and sentence. The Court held that the petitioners had no locus standi to file petition being a total stranger to the prosecution and more than that they were not even authorised by the convicts.

In B.Singh vs. Union of India(2004), the petitioner on the basis of a representation of one Ramsarup, addressed to the President of India, published in a newspaper, against a person who was likely to be appointed as a judge of the High Court filed public interest litigation challenging his appointment. The petitioner neither stated that he had any personal knowledge of the allegations made against the respondent nor did he make an effort to check whether the allegations had any basis. The Court held that this was a clear and blatant abuse of PIL and dismissed the suit with the imposition of an exemplary cost of Rs. 10,000. The court further held that PIL’s which are filed with reckless allegations against judges and persons whose names were under consideration for judgeship should be sternly dealt with. Moreover, the petitioner was seeking publicity and was not interested in the welfare of the judicial system.

In Guruvayoor Devaswom Managing Committee vs. C.K. Rajan(2003) , in a letter addressed to one of the judges of the Kerala High Court, the respondent brought to the notice of the court several corrupt practices, maladministration and mismanagement prevailing in the Shree Krishna Temple at Guruvayoor, Kerala and requested him to do justice to the downtrodden people who visit this temple. This was treated as an original petition under article 226 and a District Judge was appointed to make a general inquiry and submit a report. Upon submission of the report, the High Court directed to take the management of the temple. An SLP was filed against this order whereby the Supreme Court ruled that PIL cannot be used for solving disputes of private nature as it was evolved to render justice to the poor, the depraved, the illiterate and the downtrodden who have either no access to justice or are denied justice. Therefore it cannot be used for removing corruptions in a temple.

In Krishna Swami vs. Union of India(1992), it has been held that petition by way of PIL cannot be filed by any person seeking review of an earlier decision of the court in which they were not parties. In Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group vs. Union of India(1997), the Supreme Court dismissed PIL petitions challenging certain provisions under various personal laws. The Court observed that the petitions involved the issues of State policies with which the court had no concern. In Vinod Kumar vs. the State of U.P(2017), a PIL petition filed by an advocate against the transfer of cases to other courts including his was dismissed. It was held that filing of the writ petition in his own name was not a part of the professional obligation of the advocate.

In Dattaraj Nathuji Thaware vs State of Maharashtra(2004), it was observed that a writ petitioner who comes to the court for relief must come not only with clean hands like any other writ petitioner but also with a clean heart, clean mind, and clean objective. In Sanjeev Bhatnagar vs. Union of India(2005), a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court demanding the deletion of the word “Sindh” from our national anthem. Dismissing this petition, the Court held that the term “Sindh” had cultural connotation and in no way referred to the territory of Sindh. Recently in 2016, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court regarding the appointment of Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar as the Chief Justice of India. The contention was that the position is given to Justice Chelameshwar as he had been the only protester in the National Judicial Appointments Commission(NJAC) case and that Justice Khehar had ruled in the majority in order to seize the office of the Chief Justice. These contentions were rejected by the Court and it dismissed this petition. Nowadays PIL’s are more known as Private Interest Litigation, Publicity Interest Litigations and Political Interest Litigations because of their own vested interests rather for the good of the actual public.

Control on Frivolous and Vexatious Litigations

Public Interest Litigation is a weapon that is to be used with great care and prudence. The Courts have to be careful in entertaining a PIL which requires careful investigation into the bona fides of the petitioners, apart from separating genuine from frivolous petitions. Such abuse not only wasted the precious time of the courts but also created frustration in the minds of the genuine litigants. Also, the forum of PIL is not meant for serving a political purpose or solving political problems, where no legal wrong or legal injury to the petitioner or any identified class of people, is shown. The Courts have held that if PIL’s are not properly regulated, then it will become a way to take revenge and release enmity by unethical hands. A petition which is styled as PIL and contains nothing but a camouflage to foster personal disputes should be thrown out.

Effective measures have been taken to prevent such type of litigations. For example, the Bombay High Court in August 2016 had amended its rules on the filing of PIL’s by holding that the petitioner has to deposit a security deposit which shall be subject to the final or interim order of the Court. If the Court finds that the petition is frivolous, then the security deposit which had been deposited shall be forfeited to the petitioner and the same shall not be entertained or registered by the registry for that period of time as the Court deems fit. This was indeed a wonderful step taken by the Bombay High to force lawyers and litigants who tend to file “Publicity Interest Litigations” to think twice before they file one.

Conclusion

Public Interest Litigation is for that section of society who was not able to fight for their rights and protect their interests. Nowadays the same is being misused by the upper class of the society for their own needs. The Court has to be extremely cautious in such situations whereby it has to examine whether the petition is for public or private interest and take appropriate measures in case the same had been filed for private interest. In the words of Justice Kuldip Singh, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, “PIL is a powerful weapon in the hands of the judiciary and is used as a means to see that the promises made to the people under the Constitution are fulfilled.” Therefore this sacred jurisdiction has to be invoked very carefully in favour of a vigilant litigant and not for sake of publicity or to serve private ends.

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