Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

 

Introduction:

“Public interest Litigation", in simple words, means, litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of "Public Interest", such as pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, constructional hazards etc.

Article 32 of the Indian Constitution contains the tool which directly joins the public with the judiciary. 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 means a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or class of the community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.

In the case of People‟s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, it was held that “Public Interest Litigation which is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two parties, one making a claim or seeing relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or relief. Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and un-redressed. That would be destructive of the Rule of Law which forms one of the essential elements of public interest in any democratic form of government. The Rule of Law does not mean that the protection of the law must be available only to a fortunate few or that the law should be allowed to be prostituted by the vested interests for protecting and upholding the status quo under the guise of enforcement of their civil and political rights. The poor too have civil and political rights and the Rule of Law is meant for them also, though today it exists only on paper and not in reality.”

Development of Public Interest Litigation:

A new era of the PIL movement was heralded by Justice P.N. Bhagawati in the case of S.P. Gupta v. 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 or the Supreme Court seeking redressal against violation of a 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 executed in 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 public are at stake.

It can be evidently seen that the development of public interest litigation has been extremely significant development in the history of the Indian jurisprudence. The decisions of the Supreme Court in the 1970's loosened the strict locus standi requirements to permit filing of petitions on behalf of marginalized and deprived sections of the society by public spirited individuals, institutions and/or bodies. The higher Courts exercised wide powers given to them under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution. The sort of remedies sought from the courts in the public interest litigation goes beyond award of remedies to the affected individuals and groups. In suitable cases, the courts have also given guidelines and directions. The courts have monitored implementation of legislation and even formulated guidelines in absence of legislation.

Merits of Public Interest Litigation:

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.

Demerits of Public Interest Litigation:

1. 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. 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.

2. The framers of Indian constitution did not incorporate a strict doctrine of separation of powers but envisaged a system of checks and balances. Policy making and implementation of policy are conventionally regarding as the exclusive domain of the executive and the legislature. Vishaka v State of Rajasthan which was a PIL concerning sexual harassment of women at work place. The court declared that till the legislature enacted a law consistent with the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which India was a signatory, the guidelines set out by the court would be enforceable.

3. The flexibility of procedure that is a character of PIL has given rise to another set of problems. It gives an opportunity to opposite parties to ascertain the precise allegation and respond specific issues.

4. The credibility of PIL process is now adversely affected by the criticism that the judiciary is overstepping the boundaries pf its jurisdiction and that it is unable to supervise the effective implementation of its orders. It has also been increasingly felt that PIL is being misused by the people agitating for private grievance in the grab of public interest and seeking publicity rather than espousing public cause.

Landmark Judgements:

1. Peoples Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India (A.I.R. 1982, S C 1473)-The court now permits Public Interest Litigation or Social Interest Litigation at the instance of “Public spirited citizens" for the enforcement of constitutional & legal rights of any person or group of persons who because of their socially or economically disadvantaged position are unable to approach court for relief. Public interest litigation is a part of the process of participate justice and standing in civil litigation of that pattern must have liberal reception at the judicial door steps.

2. In the Judges Transfer Case - AIR 1982, SC 149: Court held Public Interest Litigation can be filed by any member of public having sufficient interest for public injury arising from violation of legal rights so as to get judicial redress. This is absolutely necessary for maintaining Rule of law and accelerating the balance between law and justice. It is a settled law that when a person approaches the court of equity in exercise of extraordinary jurisdiction, he should approach the court not only with clean hands but with clean mind, heart and with clean objectives.

3. Shiram Food & Fertilizer case AIR (1986) 2 SCC 176 SC: Public Interest Litigation directed the Co. Manufacturing hazardous & lethal chemical and gases posing danger to life and health of workmen & to take all necessary safety measures before re-opening the plant.

4. In the case of M.C Mehta V. Union of India (1988) 1 SCC 471 – In 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.

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