Public Interest Litigation – UPSC Notes – Indian Polity

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) originated and developed in the USA in the 1960s. In the USA, it was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests. It was undertaken in recognition of the fact that the ordinary marketplace for legal services fails to provide such services to significant segments of the population and to significant interests. Such groups and interests include the poor, environmentalists, consumers, racial and ethnic minorities, and others. In India, the PIL is a product of the judicial activism role of the Supreme Court. It was introduced in the early 1980s. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and Justice P.N. Bhagwati were the pioneers of the concept of PIL. PIL is also known variously as Social Action Litigation (SAL), Social Interest Litigation (SIL), and Class Action Litigation (CAL).


Definition of PIL

The introduction of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India was facilitated by the relaxation of the traditional rule of ‘locus standi‘. Previously, only individuals whose rights were directly infringed could seek remedies in court. However, PIL deviates from this norm. Under PIL, any public-spirited citizen or social organization can petition the court to enforce the rights of individuals or groups who, due to poverty, ignorance, or social and economic disadvantage, cannot approach the court themselves. In PIL, any member of the public with ‘sufficient interest‘ can seek legal redress for the rights of others and address common grievances.

The Supreme Court defines PIL as “a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or a class of the community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.”

PIL is indispensable for upholding the rule of law, promoting justice, and expediting the realization of constitutional objectives. In essence, the primary purposes of PIL are:

(i) Upholding the rule of law,

(ii) Facilitating effective access to justice for socially and economically weaker sections of society, and

(iii) Ensuring meaningful realization of fundamental rights.

Characteristics of PIL

The distinguishing features of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) are elaborated below:

  1. PIL serves as a strategic component of the legal aid movement, aiming to extend justice to the impoverished masses, often overlooked in mainstream discourse.
  2. Unlike traditional litigation characterized by adversarial proceedings between two parties, PIL takes on a different approach. It doesn’t involve a dispute between litigating parties seeking relief against each other.
  3. PIL is not pursued to enforce the rights of one individual against another, as in ordinary litigation, but rather to uphold and champion public interest.
  4. It highlights the imperative that violations of constitutional and legal rights affecting large segments of society, particularly the poor, ignorant, or socially and economically disadvantaged, should not be disregarded or left unaddressed.
  5. PIL embodies a collaborative endeavor among the petitioner, the State or Public Authority, and the Court to ensure the protection of constitutional or legal rights, as well as to extend social justice to vulnerable communities.
  6. In PIL, litigation is undertaken to rectify public harm, enforce public duty, safeguard collective and diffuse rights, and uphold public interest.
  7. The Court’s role in PIL is more proactive and assertive compared to traditional actions, demonstrating a creative rather than passive approach, and displaying a willingness to take affirmative measures.
  8. While PIL allows the court a degree of flexibility uncommon in the trial of traditional private law litigations, any procedural approach adopted must adhere to judicial principles and the characteristics of a judicial proceeding.
  9. Unlike traditional dispute resolution mechanisms, PIL doesn’t involve the adjudication of individual rights but rather focuses on broader societal concerns and public interests.

Scope of PIL

In 1998, the Supreme Court established a set of guidelines to govern the consideration of letters or petitions received as Public Interest Litigation (PIL). These guidelines underwent modifications in 1993 and 2003. As per these guidelines, PIL will typically be entertained for matters falling within the following categories:

  1. Bonded labor cases
  2. Neglect of children
  3. Non-payment of minimum wages and exploitation of casual workers, along with complaints of Labor Law violations (except in individual cases)
  4. Petitions from jails regarding harassment, premature release, completion of 14 years in jail, death in custody, transfer, release on personal bond, and speedy trial as a fundamental right
  5. Complaints against police for refusal to register cases, police harassment, and death in police custody
  6. Complaints of atrocities against women, including harassment, bride burning, rape, murder, kidnapping, etc.
  7. Complaints of harassment or torture of villagers by co-villagers or police, particularly from persons belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and economically backward classes
  8. Matters concerning environmental pollution, ecological balance disruption, drugs, food adulteration, heritage and culture preservation, antiquities, forest and wildlife conservation, and other issues of public importance
  9. Petitions from riot victims
  10. Family pension matters

Cases falling under the following categories will not typically be considered as PIL:

  1. Landlord-tenant disputes
  2. Service matters, including those related to pension and gratuity
  3. Complaints against Central/State Government departments and Local Bodies, except those falling under items 1-10 above
  4. Admission issues in medical and other educational institutions
  5. Petitions seeking expedited hearings of cases pending in High Courts and Subordinate Courts.

Principles of PIL

The Supreme Court has delineated the following principles regarding Public Interest Litigation (PIL):

  1. The Court, under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, can entertain petitions filed by individuals concerned about the welfare of disadvantaged people who cannot approach the Court themselves. It is the Court’s constitutional duty to safeguard the Fundamental Rights of such individuals and compel the State to fulfill its constitutional obligations.
  2. When matters of public importance arise, involving the enforcement of fundamental rights for a large number of people, the Court may treat a letter or telegram as a PIL. In such cases, procedural laws and pleading requirements may be relaxed.
  3. Whenever injustice affects a significant number of people, the Court may invoke Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, along with International Human Rights Conventions, to ensure a fair trial.
  4. The traditional rule of locus standi is relaxed to allow the Court to address grievances on behalf of the poor, deprived, illiterate, and disabled who cannot assert their legal rights.
  5. If the Court is convinced of the violation of constitutional rights of disadvantaged groups, it may not entertain objections to the maintainability of the petition by the State or Government.
  6. Procedural laws apply to PIL cases, but the applicability of principles like res judicata depends on the nature of the petition and the circumstances of the case.
  7. Disputes strictly within the realm of private law between two opposing groups will not be considered as PIL.
  8. However, in certain cases, even if the petitioner’s motive is personal redressal, the Court, in the interest of public welfare, may investigate the subject matter of the litigation.
  9. In special circumstances, the Court may appoint Commissions or other bodies to investigate allegations and ascertain facts, including the management of public institutions.
  10. The Court generally avoids interfering with policy matters and ensures it stays within its jurisdiction while protecting people’s rights.
  11. The Court typically limits itself to known areas of judicial review. Although a High Court may pass orders to ensure complete justice, it lacks powers equivalent to Article 142 of the Constitution.
  12. Generally, a High Court should refrain from entertaining PIL writ petitions challenging the constitutionality or validity of statutes or statutory rules.

Guidelines for Admitting PIL

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has become integral to the administration of law, but it must not devolve into ‘Publicity Interest Litigation‘, ‘Politics Interest Litigation‘, ‘Private Interest Litigation‘, ‘Paisa Interest Litigation‘, or ‘Middle-class Interest Litigation‘ (MIL).

In this regard, the Supreme Court emphasized, “PIL is not a panacea for all wrongs. It was essentially meant to protect the basic human rights of the weak and disadvantaged, serving as a procedure where a public-spirited person files a petition on behalf of those unable to approach the court due to poverty, helplessness, or social disabilities. However, there has been an increasing abuse of PIL, necessitating a reiteration of the parameters within which PIL can be used.”

Therefore, the Supreme Court laid down the following guidelines to prevent misuse of PIL:

  1. The court must encourage genuine and bona fide PIL while effectively discouraging and curbing PIL filed for extraneous reasons.
  2. Instead of individual judges devising their own procedures for handling PIL, each High Court should formulate rules to encourage genuine PIL and discourage those with ulterior motives.
  3. The court should verify the credentials of the petitioner before entertaining the PIL.
  4. The court should be satisfied with the accuracy of the petition’s contents before entertaining the PIL.
  5. The court should ensure substantial public interest is involved before admitting the petition.
  6. Petitions involving larger public interest, gravity, and urgency should be prioritized over others.
  7. The court should ensure that PIL aims to address genuine public harm and injury, devoid of personal gain or ulterior motives.
  8. Petitions filed by busybodies for extraneous motives should be discouraged through exemplary costs or similar methods to curb frivolous petitions and those filed for extraneous considerations.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

1. What is Public Interest Litigation (PIL)?

  • Public Interest Litigation, commonly known as PIL, is a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or a class of the community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.

2. How did Public Interest Litigation (PIL) originate?

  • PIL originated and developed in the USA in the 1960s. It was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests, recognizing that the ordinary marketplace for legal services fails to serve significant segments of the population and interests.

3. What are the primary objectives of PIL?

  • The primary purposes of PIL are to uphold the rule of law, facilitate effective access to justice for socially and economically weaker sections of society, and ensure the meaningful realization of fundamental rights.

4. What are the characteristics of PIL?

  • PIL serves as a strategic arm of the legal aid movement, deviating from traditional litigation by championing public interest rather than individual rights. It involves cooperative efforts among the petitioner, the State, and the Court to address public harm and promote social justice.

5. How does the Supreme Court of India regulate PIL to prevent misuse?

  • The Supreme Court has laid down guidelines to prevent the misuse of PIL, emphasizing the importance of genuine petitions and discouraging those filed for extraneous reasons. These guidelines include verifying the petitioner’s credentials, ensuring substantial public interest, and prioritizing petitions of larger public concern. Additionally, the court may discourage frivolous petitions by imposing exemplary costs or similar measures.

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