A Critical Analysis of The Public Interest Litigation System in India

A Critical Analysis of The Public Interest Litigation System in India

Author: Vishnu Naduvakkad,
 3rd Year Law Student,
School of Law, Christ University


In the present era of litigious revolution, the Judiciary has attempted to widen the scope of many legal concept so as to address the needs of the people. The right of access to the Courts as well as the scope of Judicial Review has been expanded over the course of several judgements. The scope of Public Interest Litigation has seen broadening to provide legal protection to all sections of the society, protect natural and public resources and to increase overall welfare of the country.
The tug of war between the Legislature and the Judiciary over the scope of Judicial Review has resulted in the numerous judicial inventions to protect the right of people to seek legal remedy as well as the justiciability over the matter. Public Interest Litigation (hereinafter referred to as ‘PIL’) is one such invention in which the public in general are interested in vindication of some rights or enforcement of some public duty.[1] It is used for the enforcement of “public interest or general interest in which the public or a class of the community has pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected”[2].

Though founded on good intentions, the PIL mechanism has been subject to criticism due to the exploitation of people trying to misuse the system for their own private ends. Political and private motives may be cloaked under the veil of public interest, resulting in exponential increase in litigation and backlog of cases. Such criticisms have led to the division of perceptions; one with a view that PILs still help the general public though it has some drawbacks and one opposing such a system as it believes that PILs do more harm to the society than good.

Those who stand for such a system believe that the Courts are best equipped to deal with the existing problems of society and must be given wider powers so as to hear cases affecting the general public. However, those against the expansion of the Court’s powers justify their stance by referring to the Constitutional principles of checks and balances. The PIL system is criticised for disrupting the balance maintained among the three organs of the Government and for bestowing excessive powers on the Judiciary.

The concept of PIL is extensively discussed in the next part of the paper so as to get a better understanding of what the mechanism seeks to do and how it is implemented. Various case laws are also analysed to examine the benefits arising from such litigations relating to the public interest, environment and general welfare of the people. The disadvantages and harm arising out of such litigation is also analysed by looking into instances where private motives were allowed to creep into this system. The latter part of the paper critically analyses the manner in which PILs are screened and accepted into the jurisdiction of the Court for the purpose of pinpointing where the source of damage lies. Certain suggestions are also forwarded in an attempt to improve the current PIL system so as to eliminate existing problems and loopholes.

Part I

India, being a country with a majority of its population in poverty or illiteracy, developed the concept of PIL so as to protect the interests of such people who can not seek legal recourse for themselves. It has its roots in ‘public interest’ drawing its principles from the Constitution of India. PIL is usually initiated when the executive takes any action that is against the interests of the general public.  Through the provisions of Article 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India, organizations representing certain sections of the society as well as individuals who seek to provide relief to such sections can approach the Courts to enforce justice.

The liberalization of locus standi is what facilitates the PIL system. To challenge an administrative action,
a person is not confined to the traditional criteria set by the principle of locus standi.
[3] Even an individual who has not himself suffered a legal injury can approach the Court if his case is one that deals with the public or pecuniary interest of a class of community of the society or any such interest by which their legal rights and liabilities are affected.[4] Locus standi is a place of standing; the right to bring an action or to be heard in a given forum.[5] Courts will decline cases if the litigant is not in fact a ‘Public Interest Litigant’ and whose credentials are in doubt. No trust is placed by a Court on a mala fide litigant however, some cases may be taken up having regard to the serious nature of the public cause and likely public injury[6] This examination by the Court into the credentials of the litigant is examined further in the latter part of the paper.
PIL is deemed as the “strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses”.[7] It is not brought before the Court for the enforcement of an individual’s rights but to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large number of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position.[8] The nature and scope of PIL has been interpreted to include things such as the environment, administrative policies and actions and a wide array of concepts that have influence over the interest of the general public. The tool used for such interpretations is the Fundamental Rights under Part III of the Constitutional of India, namely Article 21.
Article 21, which gives an individual the right to life, has been the predominant instrument of the Judiciary to protect the rights of individuals and promote the concept of welfare. Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution is seen as the groundwork from which all other rights take shape. The concept of PIL also originated from these three rights. The Judiciary liberated the concept of locus standi so as to protect and enforce such rights of people, who cannot seek legal redress by themselves. The case of S.P Gupta v. Union of India[9] is a prime example of the Court evolving a new rule by relying on Article 21. The case held that any person, acting bona fide and having sufficient interest can maintain an action for redressal of public wrong or public injury. This rule later developed and came to be known as a Public Interest Litigation. The Court reasoned that various groups of the community were being denied their right to life due to the mere reason that they are either unaware or unable to get access to the legal justice system. So as to enforce the fundamental right given under Article 32, any other person can initiate litigation on behalf of such people.

Part II

Due to the abundance of PILs emerging in the country, the Supreme Court found it necessary to affix certain guidelines so as to prevent misuse and breakdown of the system. The case of State of Uttaranchal v. Balwant Singh Chaufal[10] laid down these guidelines over the course of its judgement. Through the judgment the Court urged all the High Courts to formulate rules for encouraging and discouraging the PIL filed and even gave a time span of three months to do so. The prima facie inspection of credentials of the petitions and the correctness of the claims were also made mandatory so as to ensure that litigation was not initiated without a cause of action. The Supreme Court also reaffirmed the need for the Court to look into the public interest aspect of the case and only encourage genuine and bona fide `PILs, as well as disallow private motives and interests to creep into the PIL system.

These guidelines provided a framework to the system as well as a clear direction to Courts on how to deal with PILs. The direction given to the High Courts made substantial changes in the mechanism as each High Court had a specialized body of rules so as to deal with such PILs in the manner they saw fit. This also reduced the time taken by Courts to dispose of cases and provided speedier justice to victims. However, the imposition of preliminary inspection on petitions by the Court significantly slowed down the litigation procedure, but a view can be taken that such a process is necessary to prevent the greater harm of mala fide petitions or baseless petitions.

Prima facie checking of the credentials of such petitions must be thorough as it helps prevent initiation of false cases but also due to the fact the petition cannot be withdrawn once the Court has taken cognizance of the matter.[11] The Petitioner is usually barred from withdrawing the case due to the simple reason that the petition affects the interests of the general public and once any grievance is brought to the Court’s doorstep, only the Court can decide how to deal with such petition. However, this restriction has been criticized on the basis that if the Petitioner is deemed to represent the persons involved in the PIL, they are in a better capacity to understand whether withdrawing the petition is more beneficial to the public involved. Various recommendations have been made to Courts to allow such withdrawals if the facts and circumstances of the case do not lead to injustice by such withdrawal, but due to no rules governing Courts specifically on this, it depends upon the discretion of the Court.

PIL cases have increased exponentially due to the rise of the liberation of the locus standi rule. Courts have received grievances in many forms, including letters from victims of exploitation, hardship and bonded labour. The Courts no longer rely on the traditional method of filing cases but this raises the question of whether such relaxation of the rule will be detrimental to the overall functioning of the Court system. If the Court accepts cases through such methods, does it apply to all cases or only one which the receiving judge regards as being significant and urgent to receive immediate redress. By using its discretion to allow certain cases which have influence on the general public, the Court might, without any intention, be discriminating victims of certain grievances. The contrary can only be argued since such measure do hold merit. The relaxation of the procedural rules for cases involving public interest might be necessary due to its immense impact on society as a whole, rather than private cases which most of the time, affect only the parties involved.

Though it is unclear whether the acceptance of cases by the Court through letters and news reports is entirely beneficial to the society, it certainly has played a role in the betterment of the lives of large sections of society. In the Nawal Thakur, Convict in Kulu Jail (in re:)[12] case, the Court recognized that many letters, telegrams and complaints were received by Courts all across the country, including some that did not jurisdiction to adjudicate on the grievance in question. The Court, in this case, held that such Courts must forwards the complaints received to the appropriate tribunal for adjudication so as to effectively address the grievances of the people.

Part III

The ambit of PIL has been stretched so much over the years that it has left a mark on a wide array of areas which required legal redress and protection. To portray this vast scope, it is essential to give an account of some of the landmark PIL cases.
The case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India[13] is one of the numerous environment-related cases. Environment is a subject which affects the public at large, and in most cases, everyone residing near to the pollution source. This case dealt with the common problem of vehicular pollution leading to health problems to the citizens of Delhi. The Court directed the Delhi Administrative bodies to form High Powered Committees so as to make an assessment of technologies, low cost alternatives, feasibility of measure to reduce/ eliminate pollution and make recommendations to improve the air quality of the State. Article 21 was the focal point behind the case as air pollution is seen as an infringement on the right to life. Courts have generally been very effective in curbing environmental issues through PILs though the problem lies with the implementation of the orders issued by the Court.

Article 21, though used as the building block on which most PILs are adjudicated, is not the only provision that is used to justify the litigation. In cases of exploitation, discrimination, suppression of freedom, etc., rights under Article 14, 19, 23 and 24 all come into play. The Court has held that that “weaker sections of Indian humanity have been deprived of justice for long, long years…On account of their socially and economically disadvantaged position they lack the capacity to assert their rights and they do not have the material resources with which to enforce their social and economic entitlements and combat exploitation and injustice.”[14] This case recognized that small industries must get preferential treatment over large multi-national corporations as they are not in a position to claim redress their own legal rights. The Court relied upon Article 14 and 19 to adjudge the matter and hold tha
t suppression of the rights of such small business men by large industries must be prevented.

It is essential to note that the Courts not only rely solely on fundamental rights to dispense justice in PILs. The Directive Principles of State Policy also provide guidance to Courts while deciding cases. Though these principles are not enforceable by nature, they do provide necessary direction to Courts. The case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[15] is one such case where the Court relied upon the Directive Principles to dispense justice. The case dealt with several labourers who were being exploited in the form of bonded labour and a PIL was filed on their behalf on grounds of infringement of right to life and the right against exploitation. The Courts not only relied on the Fundamental Rights but also looked into principles such as social justice, good standards of living, minimum wage and protection from bonded labour, all of which the State is directed to achieve. The Court not only released such labourers from their plight but also provided directions to set up basic amenities in work places such as drinking water as well as fixation of mandatory rest periods. Thus, PILs not only prevent and abolish illegal activities but also leads to the betterment of the lives of the members of society.

The compensatory and restitutive nature of PILs has been widened by the Judiciary through precedents. Since the Supreme Court and the High Courts have vast judicial powers, this also applies to imposing exemplary damages to parties in PILs. Exemplary damages can be awarded in a case where the action of a public servant is oppressive, arbitrary or unconstitutional.[16] The Supreme Court has held that the plaintiff can recover exemplary damages if he is a victim of punishable behaviour. However, the Court has also laid down restrictions to grant of exemplary damages so as to avoid unjust decrees. Such damages cannot be greater than the punishment which would have been imposed if the defendant’s conduct was criminal and also the financial condition of the victim must also be considered before granting exemplary damages.

There lies countless other PILs of paramount importance to the field of legal jurisprudence as well as the welfare of society. However, to discuss each would be redundant to the discussion at hand. The afore-mentioned cases give a glimpse of the benefits of having the scope of PILs widened in India but such liberation of procedural rules almost always have a negative implication attached to it.

Various judicial pronouncements indicate the fact that there still exists a certain percentage of cases that enter the PIL system but is actually initiated for private or political motives, leading to an incredible increase in litigation. This also develops uncertainty as to the admission of the petition for hearing.[17] It has also been explicitly stated that the Judiciary must be extremely careful to see that under the guise of redressing a public grievance, it does not interfere into the sphere reserved for the Executive and Legislature by the Constitution.[18] However, no strict guidelines exist to preserve such separation of powers and the Courts have seen to step into the shoes of the Executive and make various administrative orders to meet the ends of justice. The practical problem to this encroachment lies in the fact that Judiciary is not as well equipped as the Executive to ensure the implementation of administrative orders and the adherence to the same, leading to continuance in the suffering of many victims who have been awarded relief under the law but in actuality, is in no better condition.

Furthermore, the suo moto action by Judges to take cognizance of cases based on news reports has been criticized on the grounds that Judges, in such cases, are acting as advocates as well, thereby going against the natural justice principle of “no man should be a Judge in his own case”. The same also applies to letters accepted as petitions, which are addressed to a particular Judge.
However, the most significant defect of this system lies in the fact that there is a limit to which Court’s can inspect as to the credentials of the petition; if the plaintiff hides his interest well enough, there is no mechanism competent enough to prevent him from taking advantage of the Courts’ powers.  Cases motivated by private interests brought under the PIL system is an abuse of the process of law[19] and should be rejected by Courts.

Part IV

It is indubitably clear that the PIL system does contain numerous defects which ultimately leads to injustice and overall decrease in the welfare of the people, but it does not negate the fact that the system does help countless people come out of their plight and provide them protection from exploitation and abuse. The detrimental effects of PIL does not hold an over-bearing impact on the good it does to the country. In fact, considering the amount of people that benefit from a single litigation and the promptness of such decisions due to its urgency, the negative implications of PILs pale in comparison.

The Hon’ble Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. J.S Verma viewed that it is necessary to avoid the misuse of PIL rather than criticising the process.[20] He emphasized that the Courts must show self-restrain in accepting such cases without ensuring that it is truly in the interest of the general public. Abolishing the PIL system will inarguably lead to the decrease in the welfare of the people. Though it might remove the negative effects it causes, this does not seem to justify such an abolition. India being a country where so many people find it impossible to seek legal redress, litigation initiated on their behalf by a third-party seems to be the most befitting option to remove such disabilities and improve the lives of people.

Another view point in favour of PIL is that, though private motives sneaking into the system causes unnecessary increase in litigation, the system itself reduced the number of cases filed to Courts. Since the main requirement of PILs is that it must be in the interest of the public, having a single petition filed in place of several individual petitions seeking relief from Courts will reduce the burden imposed on Courts. Rather than completely disregarding the system for the flaws it possesses, the most beneficial action would be to fix guidelines and regulate it so as to minimize any misuse. Referring once again to the case of State of Uttaranchal v. Balwant Singh Chaufal[21], the Supreme Court did a commendable job in trying to fix such guidelines for the purpose of preventing any misuse or unnecessary actions taken under this system. The Court tried resolving the problem by fixing a framework of rules governing it rather than disregarding it as a whole.

Striving to fix a slightly imperfect system may seem to be a logical option but it is in no way an idealistic situation. The use of such a system is justified by the fact that it is objectively beneficial to numerous sections of the society and so, by not abolishing it, the welfare of the people is increased. This utilitarian way of analysing legal systems is not uncommon. No system comes without its flaws but it improved and modified to fit the needs of the society. The continuance of PILs seems to be necessary for the improvement of the lives of people and this will be the case until the country is in such a stage where every person can seek legal redress for any legal infraction committed on his rights. However, this is not the case in any part of the world today and such systems is essential to the smooth functioning of the society.

The expansion of the horizons of PIL was a necessary and crucial step in the mission to strive towards the principles laid down in the Constitution. The Courts have played a very important role in shaping the legal framework of India, but it must ensure that such judicial activism is not beyond the scope of powers bestowed on it. It is strongly suggested that the Courts devise a comprehensive set of guidelines and regulations to govern the system of PILs in India. Such a framework should involve measures to test the credentials of petitions as well as to limit the degree to which the rule of locus standi can be liberated. By working within such a sphere of rules, the Judiciary can freely dispense justice while minimising any chance of misuse of the system; eventually leading to the improvement of the lives of the people.

[1] Dr. B.L Wadehra, Public Interest Litigation, Pg 1.

[2] D.K Parihar v. Union of India, AIR 2005 Raj 171: 2005 (1) Raj LR 818: 2005 (4) Serv LR 14.

[3] Janata Dal v. H.S Chowdhary, (1992) 4 SCC 305: 1993 Cr LJ 600: (1992) 2 SCR 226.

[4] Janata Dal v. H.S Chowdhary, (1992) 4 SCC 305: 1993 Cr LJ 600: (1992) 2 SCR 226.

[5] Black’s Law Dictionary, 7th Edn., 1999, p. 952.

[6] T.N Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, AIR 2006 SC 1774: 2006 AIR SCW 2082: 2006 5 SCC 28.

[7] P.U.D.R v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 1473.

[8] P.U.D.R v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 1473.

[9] AIR 1982 SC 149: (1982) 2 SCR 365: 1981 (Supp) SCC 87.

[10] AIR 2010 SC 2550: (2010) 3 SCC 402.

[11] G.R Swaminathan v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 2007 (NOC) 1054 (Mad).

[12] (1984) 3 SCC 572.

[13]  (1991) 2 SCC 137.

[14] Bihar Legal Support Society, New Delhi v. C.J. of India, AIR 1987 SC 38: 1987 Cri LJ 313: (1986) 4 SCC 767.

[15] AIR 1984 SC 802: (1984) 3 SCC 161.

[16] Common Cause, A Registered Society v. Union of India, (1999) 6 SCC 667: AIR 1999 SC 2979: 1999 AIR SCW 2899.

[17] PIL, Dr. B.L Wadehra Pg 105.

[18] State of H.P v. A Parent of a Student of a Medical College, Shimla, AIR 1985 SC 910.

[19] State v. Union of India, AIR 1996 Cal 181.

[20] Constitutional Obligation of the Judiciary, J.S Verma, AIR 1997 Journal 165.

[21] AIR 2010 SC 2550: (2010) 3 SCC 402.

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