Is Public Interest Litigation the Pill for the ILLs?

History of Public Interest Litigation:

The last two decades have witnessed the conceptualization of Public Interest Litigation in India. Through it the courts (High Court and Supreme Court) have acquired the power to grant justice to people on humanitarian grounds. It has ensured access to justice for the deprived, under-privileged and neglected segments of the society. Various public spirited persons and NGO’s have approached the court of law through this resort.

Section 32 of the Indian Constitution conferred a right upon every aggrieved individual to move to the Supreme Court or High Court directly on infringement of his fundamental right. However, Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Ayyer , acknowledged that any individual or organization can approach the Supreme Court if any act is done contrary to the public interest.

Meaning of Public Interest Litigation

According to the Black law dictionary “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.” Thus a PIL has following elements:

1. it is a legal action

2. Initiated in a court of law

3. for interest of people


The PIL has given right to the under privileged to voice against the injustice done to them. In past the Supreme Court has considered complaints, newspaper reports and credible letters sufficient evidence for initiating proceedings. The court has empowered even third parties (who have no self interest in the matter) to file such litigation.

However the shield for public protection is misused by people as a sword for personal benefit. Organizations file cases under this ambit to evade heavy court fee. Sometimes people file such litigation to pursue their political ambitions. There have been instances of frivolous PIL like to rename India “Hindustan,” rename the Arabian Sea “Sindhu Sagar,” ban vastu, reiki, feng shui, tarot, palmistry, zodiac signs etc and replace the national anthem for one offered by the petitioner.

It has also infuriated the fight between the three organs of the state( executive, legislature and the judiciary). On one hand the judges like Justice S.B. Sinha advocates the importance of judge-made law on the other hand judges like Justice Markandeya Katju emphasis the importance of self restraint on judiciary. Some jurists have opined that judicial activism has now turned into judicial terrorism. It is alleged that about 20% of judges are corrupt. Thus Judicial Accountability is yet another concern in this regard.

The judiciary is also heavily condemned on absence of adversarial trial in PIL’s. Dr. Upendra Baxi has criticized that decisions in Bhopal Tragedy Case, WTO accession and Narmada Dame were dominated by the influence of the global economic elites on the Indian Judiciary. It is criticized that since there is no cross examination litigants may give inaccurate information to the court. The PIL’s are given predominance over the existing cases by the courts. Thus if there is a false or irrelevant allegation, it would be detrimental to the interests of many people. Recently a PIL was filed by a former MP M Narayana Reddy seeking direction to the Andhra Pradesh Speaker to decide on the resignation of over 139 legislators. The SC out rightly rejected his claim saying he had no locus standi on the issue.

Further it is a grave concern that there is no mechanism by which the court can check the effective implementation of its decision. In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, the SC had laid broad guidelines on sexual harassment but till date these guidelines have not been legislated.


Judicial Activism has benefited a considerable number of people. In cases like Sunil Batra, Sheela Barse, Charles Shoobraj, DK Basu and Hussainara Khatoon, Supreme Court took a revolutionary step to safeguard the rights of the accused. Similarly in MC Mehta and Vishaka Case the court evolved directions to protect public interests. The objective of PIL was to over-reach every section of society sadly the same is not happening.  

The Supreme Court records state that only 0.4% cases filed in the SC involve PIL. One hand the data reveals that PIL cases don’t hamper the normal working of the courts, on the other hand it shows that from the millions of letters send by ordinary people are neglected and only those through formal channel are entertained. Most of the cases relate environmental concerns, child labor and caste disabilities. There has been significant increase in cases filed by advantaged class ( 57.9% in 1961-1989 to 73.3% in 2000-2008) where as there is a decrease in that filed by the disadvantaged social class ( 71.4% in 1961 -1989 to 47.2 in 2000-2008).

I have personally met the victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy. They write thousands of letters each day hoping that it would be entertained as a Public Interest Litigation. Their letters are till now unnoticed. It is disgrace that the benefits of P.I.L are not reaching the people for whom it was coined. Although the courts have been instrumental in protecting rights of people. There is a duty vested upon individuals too, lodging of frivolous complaints must be discouraged.

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Equal Justice For All – Does It Holds True Irrespective of The Pocket Size?

The Constitution of India in its article 39 A provides for `Equal Justice and Free Legal Aid’. It reads like this: “The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.”

In Hussainara Khatoon vs State of Bihar: The Supreme Court observed that,  “The poor find it difficult to furnish bail even without sureties because very often the amount of the bail fixed by the courts is so unrealistically excessive that in a majority of cases the poor are unable to satisfy the police or the magistrate about their solvency.”

The apex court recognized speedy trial as the right of the accused and right to bail was considered as a rule and denying the same was regarded as an exception.

The state has the responsibility to guard the interests of its citizens irrespective of their financial position. The Preamble through the words of Justice: social, economical and political puts the responsibilty on the state to act as a guardian for the poor and the downtroden.  According to the Marxist School of thought most people behind the bars are the poor. Is it because the poor do most of the crimes or is that the rich are never caught.

To rectify this deficiency of law countries like U.K. and South Africa have made extensive provisions in this regard. In India also, a concept of AMACUS CURIE prevails i.e. friends of court. The lawyers are appointed by the court to ensure that no person denied justice due to inability afford the legal procedure.

The Indian Judiciary has made several efforts to do proper justice to the poor. They have acknowleged letters as Public Interest Litigation, have appointed amacus curie and have expressly laid down the rights of the accused. Not only this a person has to released on parole if he has served more than half of the sentence he has been charged off  being an undertrial.

But all the efforts of the courts would be futile if the lawyers don’t participate in the mechanism to provide justice to the poor. The lawyers should also selflessly involve themselves in this procedure. Unfortunately the decision of the division bench on a P.I.L stated otherwise. The judges were unsatisfied and furious with the state of legal aid in Delhi.

Chief Justice A P Shah and Justice S Muralidhar said “Scrap the panel if they(lawyers) do not work properly on the cases assigned to them by the legal aid committee” “If the lawyers have no commitment to the cases, make stringent rules for them,”

We all know that the lawyers donot always take the most ethical cases all the time. To make money they have to compromise on their ethics and morality. But I believe that every lawyer can take atleast 5% of his cases for the greater benefit of the society. The cases he knows he is not fighting for money but for his conscience. May be it wont make India a crime free society but it would definitely make it better than now.

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