“Government will never be able do it..it is only the people themselves who must utilize the law for the purpose of bringing justice at doorsteps of large masses of people of the country”
Justice P.N Bhagwati
Public Interest Litigation (जनहित याचिका) is a form of litigation to enforce public interest in court of law. The concept of Public Interest Litigation has been borrowed and modified according our public needs from the American Jurisprudence. Public interest according to Oxford dictionary is the benefit or advantage of community as a whole such as pollution, public safety measures, road safety, bonded labor et cetera. The concept of PIL is not defined or is not any guaranteed right in any statutes. It has evolved from judicial activism for the the interest of public at large.
Where a person or class of person to whom legal injury is caused by reason of violation of their fundamental rights is unable to approach court for redressal on account of poverty, disability or socio-economic disadvantaged position, any person can, acting bona fide (good faith) can move to court for relief under Article 32 (to Supreme court) or under Article 226 (for High Courts). So that Fundamental Rights can be meaningful not only for rich or for those who can afford but for every citizen of India.
Justice P.N Bhagwati emphasized that public interest litigation is a strategic arm of legal aid movement which is intended to bring justice within reach of the poor masses who constitute the low visibility area of humanity.
Public Interest Litigation: Origin
The basic reason for growth of PIL in India is bureaucratic unresponsiveness to public needs. No effective mechanism has been established as yet for redressal of public grievances against Administration. The result is that any person having a grievance against the Administration has no alternative but to take recourse to the courts. The origin of public interest litigation is based on right to move to courts for violation of Fundamental Rights under Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution. Article 32 is procedural Fundamental Right but has been also made substantive Fundamental right as the PIL evolved through judicial activism. Article 32 according to B.R Ambedkar is heart and soul of our constitution.
Article 32(1) – The right to move to Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for enforcement of rights conferred by this part(part 3- Fundamental Rights) is guaranteed.
As Justice Patanjali Shastri observed that Constitution makers thought it advisable to treat the citizen’s right to move to courts for enforcement of their Fundamental rights as being a Fundamental Right by itself.
Appropriate Proceeding under Article 32(1):
Article 32(1) confers right to move to Supreme Court but it does not say as to who shall have this right to move to the court nor does it say by what proceedings may be so moved. Appropriate proceeding is not termed for any particular form but with the reference to purpose of proceeding. It was held by Supreme Court in Judges Appointment and Transfer case of 1981 that where a member of public acting bona fide moves the court for enforcement of their rights on behalf of any person or class of person who on any account account of poverty, disability or socio-economic disadvantaged position can move to court for relief even by just writing a letter which can also be regarded as appropriate proceedings.
In Bandhua Mukti Morcha V. Union of India 1983
The Petitioner was an organization dedicated to cause of release of bonded laborers. Petitioners addressed a letter to judges of Supreme Court pointing out that in certain mines of Faridabad large numbers of laborers were languishing under object conditions of bondage for large 10 years and ended with prayer that writ be issued for proper implementation of constitutional provision. This letter was treated as Writ Petition.
Justice V.R Krishna Iyer and P.N Bhagwati were instrumentals of the juristic revolution and evolution of PIL in cases abovementioned.
The first case reported on PIL was Hussainara Khatoon V. State of Bihar for inhumane conditions of under trail prisoners. This led to release of 40,000 under trial prisoners and right to speedy justice emerged as basic Fundamental Right.
Article 32 and Locus Standi
The Honorable Judges observed that we are so much accustomed to concepts of Anglo-Saxon Jurisprudence which require every legal proceeding including for writs to be cast in rigid or definitive mold and insist an observance of certain well settled rules of procedure that we implicitly assume that some sophisticated procedural rules must also govern writs and public interest litigation.
The court cannot be freed from shackles of these rules even if that be necessary for enforcement of Fundamental Rights, for number of years the courts had taken the view that it is only a person whose right is violated can approach to court for relief and if he does not wish to seek redressal, why should someone else be allowed on his behalf. This reasoning however breaks down when we have case of person or class of person whose Fundamental Rights is violated but cannot resort to court, but courts allows bona fide public to espouse cause of such person or class of person.
The most significant point in public interest litigation is that it discards the traditional concept of Locus Standi which means that only the person whose legal rights are being violated can approach the court for redress.
In Ranji Thomas V. UOI 1988 the court observed that to facilitate filing of public interest cases, the court has lowered the Locus Standi thresholds.
Limitations on Public Interest Litigation
- The Supreme Court has cautioned that public interest litigation is weapon that has to be used with great cure and circumspection and that the Judiciary has to be careful to see that under guise of redressing public grievance it does not encroach on sphere reserved for executive and legislative.
In Narmada Bachao Andolan V. UOI 2000 it was held that court will not transgress into field of policy decision like whether to have any project or not, what type of project to have and how to execute any policy, but court has to see that in undertaking of any policy no law is violated and Fundamental Rights are protected.
- Procedural Laws also apply to PIL like principles of Res Judicata, Laches (delay in approaching court) and Principles analogous which can be analyzed and can be relaxed depending on the nature of petition and facts of the case.
- PIL has come to stay and its necessity cannot be overemphasized. The courts have evolved a jurisprudence of compassion. The process sometimes was abused and proceedings were initiated in name of PIL for ventilating private disputes. PIL was only to be entertained if a segment of public is interested it is not a charter for any person with vested interest and improper motives meddling with judicial process.
In Suraz India Trust V. UOI 2022 court instituted heavy cost on petitioner when case was found to be bogus. The petitioners were charged with contempt of court as there was frivolous petition without any justification.
Extent of Public Interest Litigation
In Guruvayor V. C.K Rayan 2003 The Supreme Court formulated certain guidelines for filing of PIL.
- Where concerns underlying a petition are not individual but shared widely by large number of people like bonded labor, prison rights et cetera.
- Where affected person belong to disadvantaged section of society.
- Where Judicial Law making is necessary to avoid exploitation like education of children of prostitutes, inter country adoptions et cetera.
- Where Judicial intervention is necessary for protection of democratic institutions, like judiciary and others.
- Where administrative decisions are harmful for environment and jeopardize people’s rights.
Based on full case decision in M.C Mehta case and modifications in Guruvayur case the Supreme court issued guidelines by Supreme Court Registry on the official website of Supreme Court on topics on which PIL can be entertained and the topics which are excluded from the purview of PIL. You can Read it here.
The petitions are first received and scrutinized by PIL cell under Registry of Supreme Court, then if it has to be lodged the order will be passed by Registrar and it is placed before a Judge nominated by the Chief Justice of India for directions after which case will be listed before the bench concerned.
If the petition do not survive screening at PIL cell and is not covered under PIL guidelines issued by Supreme Court it will either be rejected or can even be lodged by approval of registrar with and affidavit to be filed in support of statements contained in petition is worthwhile the Judges to consider. Matters which can be dealt by High Court or other authorities will be sent to them without any comment if court sees merit but think it reasonable to be dealt by them and save time.
The Supreme Court had observed that whatever has been said in relation to Article 32 applies equally in relation to Article 226( that of High Court) and, in fact, it is much wider in scope.
PIL has flourished in India mainly because of lack of any sense of accountability and responsibility on part of government. Had the Administration discharged its role faithfully and effectively, there would be no need for people to knock at the doors of Courts to assert their rights. On the other hand the courts have played their role in a constructive manner with a view to promote the welfare of people and strengthen the democratic fabric in country.