The expression Public Interest Litigation
has been borrowed
from American jurisprudence, where it was designed to provide legal
representation to previously unrepresented groups like the poor, the racial
minorities, unorganised consumers, citizens who were passionate about the
environmental issues, etc.
Public interest Litigation (PIL) means litigation filed in a court of law, for
the protection of Public Interest
, such as Pollution, Terrorism, Road
safety, Constructional hazards etc. Any matter where the interest of public at
large is affected can be redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a
court of law.
Public interest litigation is not defined in any statute or in any act. It has
been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large.
Public interest litigation is the power given to the public by courts
through judicial activism. However, the person filing the petition must prove to
the satisfaction of the court that the petition is being filed for a public
interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body.
The court can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo motu or cases
can commence on the petition of any public spirited individual.
Some of the matters which are entertained under PIL are:
- Bonded Labour matters,
- Neglected Children,
- Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of casual
- Atrocities on women,
- Environmental pollution and disturbance of ecological balance,
- Food adulteration,
- Maintenance of heritage and culture,
Genesis and Evolution of PIL in India: Some Landmark Judgements
The seeds of the concept of public interest litigation were initially sown in
India by Justice Krishna Iyer, in 1976 in Mumbai Kamagar Sabha vs. Abdul Thai
AIR 1976 SC 1455. This case is considered to be the foundation of public
interest litigation in India. In this case Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer speaking
for the Court held that- “Procedural prescriptions are handmaids, not
mistresses, of justice... . Our adjectival branch of jurisprudence, by and
large, deals not with sophisticated litigants but the rural poor, the urban lay
and the weaker societal segments for whom law will be an added terror.
Test litigations, representative actions, pro bono public and like broadened
forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to
the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real
issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural, shortcomings.
Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others
, AIR 1978 SC 1675
A landmark decision on prison reforms , in this case the apex Court held that a
convict is entitled to the precious right guaranteed by Art. 21 that he shall
not be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the
procedure established by law.
The first reported case of PIL was Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar
(1979) that focused on the inhuman conditions of prisons and under trial
prisoners that led to the release of more than 40,000 under trial prisoners.
Right to speedy justice emerged as a basic fundamental right which had been
denied to these prisoners. The same set pattern was adopted in subsequent cases.
A new era of the PIL movement was heralded by Justice P.N. Bhagawati in the case
of S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India.
In this case it was held that “any member of the public or social action group
acting bonafide” can invoke the Writ Jurisdiction of the High Courts (under
article 226) or the Supreme Court (under Article 32) seeking redressal against
violation of legal or constitutional rights of persons who due to social or
economic or any other disability cannot approach the Court.
By this judgment PIL became a potent weapon for the enforcement of “public
duties” where executive action or misdeed resulted in public injury. And as a
result any citizen of India or any consumer groups or social action groups can
now approach the apex court of the country seeking legal remedies in all cases
where the interests of general public or a section of the public are at stake.
Justice Bhagwati did a lot to ensure that the concept of PILs was clearly
enunciated. He did not insist on the observance of procedural technicalities and
even treated ordinary letters from public-minded individuals as writ petitions.
The Supreme Court in Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay & Ors. vs. M/s Devkala
Consultancy Service and Ors
“In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her
private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in
furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the
state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice.” Thus,
a private interest case can also be treated as public interest case.
M.C Mehta vs. Union of India:
In a Public Interest Litigation brought against Ganga water pollution so as to
prevent any further pollution of Ganga water. Supreme Court held that petitioner
although not a riparian owner is entitled to move the court for the enforcement
of statutory provisions, as he is the person interested in protecting the lives
of the people who make use of Ganga water.
Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan:
The judgement of the case recognized sexual harassment as a violation of the
fundamental constitutional rights of Article 14, Article 15 and Article 21. The
guidelines also directed for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace
(Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Factors Responsible for the Growth of PIL in India
The character of the Indian Constitution. India has a written constitution which
through Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State
Policy) provides a framework for regulating relations between the state and its
citizens and between citizens inter-se.
India has some of the most progressive social legislations to be found anywhere
in the world whether it be relating to bonded labor, minimum wages, land
ceiling, environmental protection, etc. This has made it easier for the courts
to haul up the executive when it is not performing its duties in ensuring the
rights of the poor as per the law of the land.
The liberal interpretation of locus standi where any person can apply to the
court on behalf of those who are economically or physically unable to come
before it has helped. Judges themselves have in some cases initiated suo moto
action based on newspaper articles or letters received.
Although social and economic rights given in the Indian Constitution under Part
IV are not legally enforceable, courts have creatively read these into
fundamental rights thereby making them judicially enforceable. For instance the
"right to life
" in Article 21 has been expanded to include right to free
legal aid, right to live with dignity, right to education, right to work,
freedom from torture, bar fetters and hand cuffing in prisons, etc.
Judicial innovations to help the poor and marginalised: For instance, in the
Bandhua Mukti Morcha, the Supreme Court put the burden of proof on the
respondent stating it would treat every case of forced labor as a case of bonded
labor unless proven otherwise by the employer. Similarly in the Asiad Workers
judgment case, Justice P.N. Bhagwati held that anyone getting less than the
minimum wage can approach the Supreme Court directly without going through the
labor commissioner and lower courts.
In PIL cases where the petitioner is not in a position to provide all the
necessary evidence, either because it is voluminous or because the parties are
weak socially or economically, courts have appointed commissions to collect
information on facts and present it before the bench.
Who Can File a PIL and Against Whom?
- Any citizen can file a public case by filing a petition:
- Under Art 32 of the Indian Constitution, in the Supreme Court.
- Under Art 226 of the Indian Constitution, in the High Court.
- Under sec. 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code, in the Court of
However, the court must be satisfied that the Writ petition fulfils some
basic needs for PIL as the letter is addressed by the aggrieved person, public
spirited individual and a social action group for the enforcement of legal or
Constitutional rights to any person who are not able to approach the court for
A Public Interest Litigation can be filed against a State/ Central Govt.,
Municipal Authorities, and not any private party. The definition of State is the
same as given under Article 12 of the Constitution and this includes the
Governmental and Parliament of India and the Government and the Legislature of
each of the States and all local or other authorities within the territory of
India or under the control of the Government of India.
Significance of PIL
- The aim of PIL is to give to the common people access to the courts to
obtain legal redress.
- PIL is an important instrument of social change and for maintaining the
Rule of law and accelerating the balance between law and justice.
- The original purpose of PILs have been to make justice accessible to the
poor and the marginalized.
- It is an important tool to make human rights reach those who have been
- It democratises the access of justice to all. Any citizen or
organisation who is capable can file petitions on behalf of those who cannot
or do not have the means to do so.
- It helps in judicial monitoring of state institutions like prisons,
asylums, protective homes, etc.
- It is an important tool for implementing the concept of judicial review.
- Enhanced public participation in judicial review of administrative
action is assured by the inception of PILs.
Certain Weaknesses of PIL
PIL actions may sometimes give rise to the problem of competing rights. For
instance, when a court orders the closure of a polluting industry, the interests
of the workmen and their families who are deprived of their livelihood may not
be taken into account by the court.
It could lead to overburdening of courts with frivolous PILs by parties with
vested interests. PILs today has been appropriated for corporate, political and
personal gains. Today the PIL is no more limited to problems of the poor and the
Cases of Judicial Overreach by the Judiciary in the process of solving
socio-economic or environmental problems can take place through the PILs.
PIL matters concerning the exploited and disadvantaged groups are pending for
many years. Inordinate delays in the disposal of PIL cases may render many
leading judgments merely of academic value.
Public Interest Litigation has produced astonishing results which were
unthinkable three decades ago. Degraded bonded labourers, tortured under trials
and women prisoners, humiliated inmates of protective women’s home, blinded
prisoners, exploited children, beggars, and many others have been given relief
through judicial intervention.
The greatest contribution of PIL has been to enhance the accountability of the
governments towards the human rights of the poor.
The PIL develops a new jurisprudence of the accountability of the state for
constitutional and legal violations adversely affecting the interests of the
weaker elements in the community.
However, the Judiciary should be cautious enough in the application of PILs to
avoid Judicial Overreach that are violative of the principle of Separation of
Besides, the frivolous PILs with vested interests must be discouraged to keep
its workload manageable