Public Interest Litigation
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This article is written by Meera Patel pursuing BA.LLB (Hons.) from Maharaja Sayajirao University, School of Law. This article highlights how PILs are used as well as abused in our country.

Introduction

As per the Constitution of India, PIL (public interest litigation) is a type of litigation meant to protect the interest of the public. The special feature of this type of litigation is the fact that it is not necessary that only the aggrieved party can approach the court. Such cases are usually not introduced in courts by the aggrieved parties. For the exercise of court jurisdiction, under this law, the court has handed the power to approach the court regardless of a person’s association with the case. Therefore, technically a PIL is the power that is given to the public by the court via judicial activism.

Throughout history, such cases have been brought to the attention of the court due to reasons such as the aggrieved party lacks the necessary resources that could be needed to commence the litigation or maybe their privilege to move the court has been cornered by the judicial system. Moreover, if the case is not taken up to the court by any petition started by a public-spirited person, even the court has the right to take the case into its own hands and proceed suo moto.

Public interest litigation

The term Public Interest Litigation has been consciously borrowed from the American Jurisprudence. As per the original plan, the purpose of introducing PILs in the USA was to provide a subtle amount of legal representation to the unrepresented poor, minorities, citizens who were truly passionate about issues pertaining to the public interest such as terrorism, road safety, environmental hazards, etc. No particular statutes or acts have been created to address the issue of public interest litigation by the judges who could interpret the intent of the public. 

Although, PILs is a power given by the court to the public via judicial activism, the party that introduced the PIL needs to prove the intent behind it. The party needs to show that the PIL affects the public at large and that particular case isn’t just some random litigation for personal gain or a case to solve any personal agitations. 

Listed below are a few types of issues that are entertained by the courts under PIL

  • Neglected children;
  • Unpaid minimum wages;
  • Exploitation of workers;
  • Atrocities on humanity;
  • Environmental pollution and related issues;
  • Debt slavery.

What instigated the growth of PIL in India

The character of the Constitution of India

As per the constitution of India, Part III and Part IV which are fundamental rights and directive principles respectively of India, lays down a framework of regulating the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Progressive civil litigation

India is a developing country yet our constitution provides some of the most progressive social legislation in the world. Issues like bonded labour (debt slavery), exploitation of workers, land ceilings, etc are the main burning issues that are addressed by the PILs in India. This provision by the courts has proved to be super useful for the benefit of the citizens themselves due to the fact that when the executive addresses other matters, the poor or minorities aren’t neglected.

Locus Standi

Locus Standi means a right or capacity of an individual to approach or appear in a court on the behalf of any person that is economically or physically incapable of appearing in a court. The very liberal interpretation of Locus Standi is one of the main reasons for the growth of PILs in India. Sometimes, judges themselves initiate suo moto based on newspaper articles or petition letters received by them.

Judicial assistance

Even though social and economic rights have been laid down in Part IV of the Indian constitution, the PILs aren’t legally enforceable under the constitution. Therefore, the courts have listed under the fundamental rights thus making them judicially enforceable. 

For example: Under Article 21 which states ‘right to life’ also inculcates the right to free legal aid, live with dignity, education, work, freedom from torture, etc.

There have been PIL cases when the petitioner isn’t able to provide necessary evidence due to its voluminous nature of the social/ economic weakness. Therefore, to keep such cases in mind, the court-appointed a commission whose sole function is to collect information on facts that will be later presented to the bench.

Who can file a PIL

  • Any Indian citizen can file a petition for a PIL in the Supreme Court of India, under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Any Indian citizen can file a petition for a PIL in the High Court of India, under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Any Indian citizen can file a petition for a PIL in the court of Magistrate, under Article 133 of the Criminal Procedure Court. 
  • One of the most basic criteria a petitioner needs to fulfil to satisfy the needs of the said court. The main fulfilments required are a basic letter addressed by the aggrieved party, the petitioner must be a public-spirited individual or a social activity group works too to enforce legal action against any of the respondents.  
  • It is mandatory that any PIL filed should be filed against a State, Central government, municipal authority, etc, and not against a private party.  

Importance of a PIL

The main reason for filing a PIL is to provide access to the courts to the common people so that they can get opportunities to obtain the legal remedy. It is an important social changing instrument that is used for maintaining the rule of law which will in return control and balance the gravity between law and justice.

The fundamental reason for filing PILs is to provide access to courts to the poor and marginalized section of the society as it is an important tool to outsource the availability of human rights, consumer welfare, and environment to those who have been deprived of the said rights. In other words, this provision democratizes the access of justice to all the citizens of the country regardless of their race, gender, economic/ social status. This provision also provides an inexpensive legal remedy because only the nominal court fees are charged to file a PIL.   

The PILs not only help in democratizing access to justice, but it also helps in monitoring the state inducted institutions such as prison, protective homes, asylums, etc. Also, it is considered as a tool that can be used to implement the concept of judicial reviews in India.

Abuse of the PIL

  • No matter how much progress PILs have brought to the Indian Judicial system, we cannot unsee the flip side of the coin at any cost as PILs are being abused a lot nowadays along with its extensive and abused use. They have brought various pitfalls and drawbacks too. Therefore, to avoid such cases of abuse of the PILs, the supreme court itself laid down a detailed guideline that will be used to govern the management and disposal of the PILs. 
  • Many PIL activists in India have been using the PILs as a handy tool for harassing the judicial system. Since filing PILs is an inexpensive process, many frivolous cases are being filed without any investment of hefty court fees which one would normally pay for civil litigation cases. Therefore, by filing such cases, deals are negotiated to obtain money for the said aggrieved party to obtain the PILs. The simple explanation for such cases is that any weapon that can be used to defend oneself can also be used to attack someone. Using the same logic, one can lower the Locus Standi requirements which permit the motivated parties to file PILs which could represent a public interest matter.
  • The abuse of the PILs has become so uncontrollable that its fundamental purpose has been lost amongst all the ingenuine cases which have been filed by privately motivated interests which are silhouettes of the apparent public interest cases. 
  • For example, various groups that are affiliated with politics use PILs so they can use the judicial system to get their way around their problems or when they cannot achieve the goal they have been longing to achieve. They abuse the concept of PIL to bring themselves closer to their aims and interests. 
  • PILs have been criticized a lot nowadays as the concept of entertaining judicial activism has been brewing a lot amongst the people of India. Justice Bhagwati who fought the landmark case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India made an observation which stated that the courts were performing the aforementioned actions which are the meagre efforts that lead to the realization of the constitutional objectives of the judicial system which does not collide with the executive and the legislature.
  • Another similar loose thread that is criticized by the public of India is the process of absolutely diluting the principle on which ‘Locus Standi’ is based on. This grey area has been brought up in various arguments stating that dilution of the Locus Standi has opened up various scandalous information such as the petitioner’s private hidden interests, the motive of the petitioners which state that the reason behind filing the PIL was to seek publicity and not justice, usage of PILs to showcase their political objectives, etc. due to such instances, this acts as a deterrent to people which prevents them from filing PILs which matters in future.

Remedies 

Keeping in mind that the judiciary is responsible to keep the use of the PILs in check listed below are a few guideline remedies that used by the supreme court itself to manage the use and disposal of the PILs:

  • The fundamental duty of the courts should be to check the petitioner’s bonafide reason so that the PIL doesn’t get abused in the name of personal gain, political funding, private interest, or oblique considerations.
  • The courts need to keep in mind that the process isn’t manipulated or corrupt. Although with the second largest population in the world, it is difficult to keep that in check, trying to do the same doesn’t hurt anyone. 
  • The judicial system must make sure that the process of petitioning for a PIL isn’t abused or altered by politicians or the rich which results in the supremacy of corrupt political objectives as well as the delay of the administrative action.
  • In various instances, the PILs have affected so many rights of a person even before hearing back from the courts. The simplest solution to this is that the courts must be cautious and keep in mind the interests of people who are the victims. The judicial system must adopt a strategy that ensures sufficient notices of all the interests of the people who are likely to suffer the impact of the judiciary’s actions.

                  

Landmark judgements 

  • The main concept of Public Interest Litigation (PILs) was introduced to the Indian judicial system by Justice Krishna Iyer in the year 1976. The landmark judgment is known as the Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs. Abdul Thai.
  • The very first case that was reported to the courts was a PIL which goes by the case name Hussainara Khatoon vs. Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1979). The case concentrated on the barbaric conditions of prisons and how the prisoners who were under trial were kept in those prisons. This case is considered as the landmark PIL case as more than 40,000 prisoners who were under trial back then were released after this judgment was announced.
  • India saw a new judicial system after the PIL movement took place which was initiated and instigated by Justice P.N. Bhagwati while he was fighting the case of S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India. As per this case, it was specified that any person affiliated with the social/ public group acting bonafide has the right to invoke a ‘writ jurisdiction’ of the high courts that too under Article 226 or if they want to invoke a ‘writ jurisdiction’ of the Supreme Court, then they can invoke their rights under Article 32. By these provisions, individuals can seek redressal against any kind of violation or abuse of the rights of a person whether they are legal or constitutional.
  • Under this judgment, PILs became a hugely formidable and influential weapon that can be used to enforce public duties. As a result, a citizen of India for that matter got the opportunity to approach the apex court themselves where they can seek legal remedies in cases where the interest of the general public is on the stand. Although with everything, Justice Bhagwati rooted the concept of PILs so deep in our country as he insisted that the court becomes cautious when it comes to the procedural technicalities. 
  • The very famous case known as MC Mehta vs. Union of India is the most prominent example of a Public Interest Litigation case. This PIL was filed against the water pollution that was observed in the holy river Ganga. This was a legal step taken by the petitioner M.C Mehta to prevent further pollution of Ganga. The apex court’s judgment stated that even though the petitioner was not the owner of the river, the petitioner is entitled to move further with the case so that the statutory provisions can be enforced as the main goal of the petitioner for filing this case affects people at large. He wanted to save the lives of people who made their living through the Ganga river’s water.

Conclusion

The concept of Public Interest Litigation has managed to bring out surprising results that were impossible to derive 5 decades ago. Many cases of degraded bonded labourers, blinded prisoners, exploited children, etc got relief from PILs filed by various social activists. The greatest contribution to the betterment of various human rights in India has been brought into the country because of these PILs.

References 


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