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Public Interest Litigation (PIL) A Boon or Bane?

Written by: Shri. V.S.Vadivel, FCA, ACS.- Chartered Accountant,Chennai
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The development of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the country has very recently uncovered its own pitfalls and drawbacks. The genuine causes and cases of public interest have in fact receded to the background and irresponsible PIL activists all over the country have started to play a major but not a constructive role in the arena of litigation. They try to utilise this extraordinary remedy, available at a cheaper cost, as a substitute for ordinary ones. This mini article briefly narrates the ill effects of the emerging malady and possible remedies.

Justice without force is impotent;
force without justice is tyranny - Pascal in Pensees.

There are times when even justice brings harm with it - Sophocles in Electra.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere - Martin Luther King,Jr.

Till 1960s and seventies, the concept of litigation in India was still in its rudimentary form and was seen as a private pursuit for the vindication of private vested interests. Litigation in those days consisted mainly of some action initiated and continued by certain individuals, usually, addressing their own grievances/problems. Thus, the initiation and continuance of litigation was the prerogative of the injured person or the aggrieved party. Even this was greatly limited by the resources available with those individuals. There was very little organised efforts or attempts to take up wider issues that affected 
classes of consumers or the general public at large.

However, all these scenario changed during Eighties with the Supreme Court of India led the concept of public interest litigation (PIL). The Supreme Court of India gave all individuals in the country and the newly formed consumer groups or social action groups, an easier access to the law and introduced in their work a broad public interest perspective.

Public Interest Litigation (PIL)-The legal history:
Public Interest Litigation popularly known as PIL can be broadly defined as litigation in the interest of that nebulous entity: the public in general. Prior to 1980s, only the aggrieved party could personally knock the doors of justice and seek remedy for his grievance and any other person who was not personally affected could not knock the doors of justice as a proxy for the victim or the aggrieved party. In other words, only the affected parties had the locus standi (standing required in law) to file a case and continue the litigation and the non affected persons had no locus standi to do so. And as a result, there was hardly any link between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Indian Union and the laws made by the legislature on the one hand and the vast majority of illiterate citizens on the other.

However, all these scenario gradually changed when the post emergency Supreme Court tackled the problem of access to justice by people through radical changes and alterations made in the requirements of locus standi and of party aggrieved. The splendid efforts of Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were instrumental of this juristic revolution of eighties to convert the apex court of India into a Supreme Court for all Indians. And as a result any citizen of India or any consumer groups or social action groups can approach the apex court of the country seeking legal remedies in all cases where the interests of general public or a section of public are at stake. Further, public interest cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil litigation.

PIL- A Boon:
1. In Public Interest Litigation (PIL) vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy because there is only a nominal fixed court fee involved in this.

2. Further, through the so-called PIL, the litigants can focus attention on and achieve results pertaining to larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, consumer welfare and environment.

Abuse of PIL: 

However, the development of PIL has also uncovered its pitfalls and drawbacks. As a result, the apex court itself has been compelled to lay down certain guidelines to govern the management and disposal of PILs. And the abuse of PIL is also increasing alongwith its extended and multifaceted use.
Of late, many of the PIL activists in the country have found the PIL as a handy tool of harassment since frivolous cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil litigation and deals could then be negotiated with the victims of stay orders obtained in the so-called PILs.
Just as a weapon meant for defence can be used equally effectively for offence, the lowering of the locus standi requirement has permitted privately motivated interests to pose as public interests. The abuse of PIL has become more rampant than its use and genuine causes either receded to the background or began to be viewed with the suspicion generated by spurious causes mooted by privately motivated interests in the disguise of the so-called public interests.

Steps Necessary:
With the view to regulate the abuse of PIL the apex court itself has framed certain guidelines (to govern the management and disposal of PILs.) The court must be careful to see that the petitioner who approaches it is acting bona fide and not for personal gain, private profit or political or other oblique considerations. The court should not allow its process to be abused by politicians and others to delay legitimate administrative action or to gain political objectives. Political pressure groups who could not achieve their aims through the administrative process or political process may try to use the courts (through the means of PILs) to further their closely vested aims and interests.

There may be cases where the PIL may affect the right of persons not before the court, and therefore in shaping the relief the court must invariably take into account its impact on those interests and the court must exercise greatest caution and adopt procedure ensuring sufficient notice to all interests likely to be affected.

At present, the court can treat a letter as a writ petition and take action upon it. But, it is not every letter which may be treated as a writ petition by the court. The court would be justified in treating the letter as a writ petition only in the following cases-
(i) It is only where the letter is addressed by an aggrieved person or
(ii) a public spirited individual or
(iii) a social action group for enforcement of the constitutional or the legal rights of a person in custody or of a class or group of persons who by reason of poverty, disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position find it difficult to approach the court for redress.

Even though it is very much essential to curb the misuse and abuse of PIL, any move by the government to regulate the PIL results in widespread protests from those who are not aware of its abuse and equate any form of regulation with erosion of their fundamental rights. Under these circumstances the Supreme Court Of India is required to step in by incorporating safe guards provided by the civil procedure code in matters of stay orders /injunctions in the arena of PIL.
In the landmark case of Raunaq International Limited v/s IVR Construction Ltd, Justice Sujata V Manohar rightly enunciated that - when a stay order is obtained at the instance of a private party or even at the instance of a body litigating in public interest, any interim order which stops the project from proceeding further must provide for the reimbursement of costs to the public in case ultimately the litigation started by such an individual or body fails. In other words the public must be compensated both for the delay in the implementation of the project and the cost escalation resulting from such delay.

Conclusion:
Public Interest Litigants, all over the country, have not taken very kindly to such court decisions. They do fear that this will sound the death-knell of the people friendly concept of PIL. However, bona fide litigants of India have nothing to fear. Only those PIL activists who prefer to file frivolous complaints will have to pay compensation to then opposite parties. It is actually a welcome move because no one in the country can deny that even PIL activists should be responsible and accountable. It is also notable here that even the Consumers Protection Act, 1986 has been amended to provide compensation to opposite parties in cases of frivolous complaints made by consumers. In any way, PIL now does require a complete rethink and restructuring. Anyway, overuse and abuse of PIL can only make it stale and ineffective. Since it is an extraordinary remedy available at a cheaper cost to all citizens of the country, it ought not to be used by all litigants as a substitute for ordinary ones or as a means to file frivolous complaints.

More Articles:
All About PIL

* Its origin and meaning
* What is PIL?
* Concept, Meaning & Definition
* Procedure for Filing PIL
* Against whom PIL can be filed
* Mechanism for protection of Human Rights through PIL
Public Interest Litigation
PIL In Developing Countries
Problems facing Public Interest Litigation in India
Development of public Interest Litigation
Problems facing Public Interest Litigation in India
Role of PIL in Environmental Protection In India

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