Public Interest Litigation (PIL) a celebratory slogan in the field of rights, law, and justice has no specific or stringent definition anywhere in Indian law or statute or any specific piece of legislation. Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer can be credited to be the harbinger of PIL and PIL proved to be the crusader of rights and public interest. PIL found place in the Indian Legal System in the famous Hussainara Khatoon case- where 4000 under-trial prisoners were released from Prison. Case of S.P. Gupta versus UOI, marked that any member of the public or group acting bonafide in public interest can invoke writ jurisdiction of the court. The celebrated rhythm of access to justice has become a common man’s reality rather than just being inaccessible empty echoes with the rooting of PIL into the Indian Legal System.
Earlier, following the principle of locus standi only the interested party or to say aggrieved party or anyone who suffered legal injury or is likely to suffer legal injury had the right to file suit or instill proceedings in the court as individuals and a third party or a stranger was not allowed to do that. Public Interest Litigation liberated the concept of locus standi, as it allows a private party, group of people, NGO, association, court itself or other such groups which is/are not aggrieved party/parties can approach the court to raise the issue. PIL is a widely accessible and used tool of justice to enforce legal rights, fundamental rights, challenge the decisions of public authorities, review lawfulness of any act, review lawlessness of any act or any such act of a public body or authority or for larger interests. PIL is generally used for class action suits, rooting general welfare of public, general public causes/concerns, group interests rather than individual causes. This has also brought to action the causes and concerns of poor people or to tackle the concern of lack of resources with people that acted as a constraint for them to opt for legal recourse. The over-arching idea behind the concept of PIL is access to justice and guarding the welfare of people.
The sprouts of PIL can be traced back to the concept of Judicial Review, a basic feature of the Constitution rooted in Article 32. Any individual or organization or a group of people can move to the court for filing a PIL by the way of writ jurisdiction of Supreme Court and High Court under Article 32 and Article 226 respectively. A public case can also be filed under Section 133 of Cr. P.C in Magistrate’s court. Indian Courts taking note of the idea behind PIL (being a welfare legislative tool) and as for liberalization of the traditional legal system have acted liberal enough to even treat a letter as a writ petition to act on, as Justice Bhagwati mentioned that Procedure being a mere handmaiden of justice should not stand in way of access to justice. PIL in itself is more or less a facet of judicial activism in India. However for a petition to fall within the profile of being a PIL, it has to be convincingly an issue of public interest. The court has to carefully scrutinize and look through the petition that the person who files the PIL is acting bonafide in the public interest and not for private gain or shady-ulterior motives.
PIL has been a major shift in the procedural outlook of the Indian Legal System, giving inexpensive access to the public of justice and legal recourse. Public Interest Litigation is a strong legal tool, in access and approach of poor and marginalized people and a boon for enforcement of rights & for larger causes of welfare.
However, PIL with time has also reflected some of its demerits in usage, purpose, and application. PIL being an easy way to approach the courts with no procedural, technical, or financial constraints or complications has also been misused with no peculiar consciousness. In some cases, it may result in judicial over-reach if not dealt with caution. At times PIL is also used by people with a vested interest or to file frivolous petitions or as mere tool of harassment against the defendant. At times PIL gives rise to competing rights and crossroads. Being an easy weapon, PILs have increased the burden of courts with the galore of frivolous petitions and inordinate delay rather than defeating the very purpose of the PIL itself. With the growth of the concept of PIL, it is time and again found to be used as a leaflet of publicity and mere on record fame.
However demerits are weeds to prominent merits of any idea and can be uprooted if dealt with cautiously. PIL seems to be the bagpiper to which easy access to justice and legal remedy to the general public followed. Liberalizing the stringent blocks of locus standi, it inclined towards easy access by the way of representation of public interest by public-spirited individual/individuals. The idea of PIL operates over equity as it gives convenient access to legal remedy to the poor people or individuals with other constraints who couldn’t act on their own. PIL has significantly altered the formal and procedural structure of the justice delivery system and lowered the threshold for the public to reach out and raised the bars of justice. It has successfully proved to be the emergency window to reach justice for those who couldn’t fight the crowd of procedure and costs to enter via straight and stringent doors.
The Author- Adv. Ananya Tyagi, is a law graduate (LL.B- 3 years) from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi and is the Junior Editor of Consumer Law Today (a monthly consumer law journal). The opinion expressed in the article are personal and reflect an individualistic view.