Public Interest Litigation

Public interest litigation (PIL) has assumed an important role and dimension in the recent years and has come to stay in India. PIL means a legal action initiated in a court of law by a person or persons other than the affected party, for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or class of the community have some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected. But while entertaining a plea in such cases, the court would ascertain that it is done by a bonafide person or party for a general cause, not for the sake of any personal gain or favour. It is against the traditional doctrine of ‘standing’ or locus standi which requires that an aggrieved person must be directly affected by the action of the other party before he comes to the court to seek relief. The center of gravity has shifted from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of PIL. The Supreme Court has observed that whenever a wrong against a community interest is done, an absence of locus standi cannot always be a plea to a non-suit for an interested public body chasing the wrong doer in the court. Justice V R Krishna Iyer too observed that if a plaintiff with good cause is turned away merely because he is not affected personally, that means some government agency is left free to violate the law and that is contrary to public interest. In simpler words, the requirement of locus standi for initiating proceedings and is diluted while registering a case. The intention behind registering a PIL is to improve access to justice to those who were otherwise too poor or unaware of their legal entitlement. The court allows actions to be brought on their behalf by social activists and lawyers. Thus it is litigation undertaken or the purpose of redressing public injury, enforcing public duty and protecting the rights of the vulnerable sections of the society. Justice Jagdish Bhagwati a pioneer in his field, remarks: The time has now come when the courts must become the courts for the poor and the struggling masses. They must shed their character as upholder of the social order and status quo. They must be sensitized to the need of doing justice to the larger masses of the people to whom justice has been denied by a cruel and heartless society for generations. It is through PIL that problems of the poor are now coming to the forefront and the entire theatre of law is changing. The intention is to improve access to justice, to those who are poor, ignorant, illiterate, in ill health, or handicapped. Since the affected party may be suffering from any of these afflictions’, a PIL petition may be brought before the court even in the form of a letter written by someone on behalf of a prisoner who is in jailor a mentally challenged person in a mental institution or on behalf of a bonded labourer. This process of initiating proceedings through letters is called epistolary jurisdiction. In a PIL, the nature of the proceedings does not fit into the accepted practises during litigation. The court room dynamics are different from the civil or criminal appeals. While in the ordinary cases, the activity is limited to questions and answers, the judges in a PIL proceeding take a more active role. They not only pose questions to the parties but also explore likely and ideal solutions. It is more akin to collective problem-solving rather than an acrimonious contest between the counsels. The court can also constitute fact-finding commissions on a case-by-case basis which are deputed to look into the case and report to the court. These commissions. usually consist of experts in the concerned field or practising lawyers. While the Supreme Court has also hastened to sound a red alert that the process should not be abused by a mere busy body or a meddlesome interloper or wayfarer or officious intervener without any interest or concern except for personal gain. Those professing to •be public-spirited citizens cannot be encouraged to indulge in wild and reckless allegations besmirching the character of others, but at the same time the court cannot close its eyes and persuade itself to uphold publicly mischievous executive actions which have been so exposed… In India, the trend of filling PlL was initiated by Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna lyer. One of the earliest case of a PlL was in the early 1980s of Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar. This case was concerned with a series of articles published in the Indian Express which exposed the plight of undertrial prisoners in the Bhagalpur jail in Bihar. A writ petition was filed by an advocate Mrs. Hingorani on their behalf in the Supreme Court. Many of the prisoners had been in jail for longer periods than the maximum permissible sentences for the offences they had been charged with. The Supreme Court accepted the locus standi of the advocate to maintain the writ petition. The Supreme Court while deciding in favour of the under trials observed that they should not be detained without cause and if it appears that it would take more than 18 months to begin the trial, these prisoners may be set free. Thereafter, a series of cases followed in which the court gave directions through which the right to a speedy trial was deemed to be an integral and essential part of the protection of life and liberty. In 1980, in the case of Municipal Council Ratlam vs. Vardichand, the Court recognized the locus standi of a group of citizens who sought directions against the local municipal council for the removal of open drains that were causing stench and diseases. In 1983 came the case of Sheela Barse vs. the State of Maharashtra. In 1983, a journalist Sheela Barse took up the cause of women prisoners in the city jails at Mumbai. She claimed that these prisoners were victims of custodial violence. The court after a detailed examination, ordered the Director of College of Social Work Bombay, to visit the jails, interview the women prisoners and see whether they were being tortured. He was asked to prepare a report and submit it to the court. On the basis of this report, the court ordered that female prisoners may be detained in a female lock-up only and interrogated in the presence of female police officials only. Further in 1985, a journalist Olga Tellis filed a case against the Bombay Municipal Corporation on behalf of hundreds of pavement dwellers who were being displaced by construction activity by the corporation. The court recognized the right to livelihood and housing of the pavement dwellers and issued an injunction to halt their eviction. The unique model of PIL that has evolved in India is that not only does it cater the issues like consumer protection, environment, equal wages for men and women, gender justice, ecological destruction etc, it is also directed towards finding social and political space for the disadvantaged and other vulnerable groups in society. There have been hundreds of other cases as well in which the judiciary has exercised its powers with courage, creativity and conviction. Some of them are the Asiad Project Case, Bandhu Mukti Morcha Case, Hawala Case, Chandraswami Case and cases relating to environmental degradation. It has also expressed its displeasure over the magnitude of corruption in high places, particularly the housing scandal, the Fodder Scam, St. Kitts Forgery case, Lakhubhai Pathak case, 2G Spectrum case, etc.

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