Public Interest Litigation: An Overview

Public Interest Litigation: An Overview

“ Government alone will never be able to do it…. It is only the people themselves who must utilise the law for the purpose of bringing justice at the doorsteps of the large masses of people of the country.”

– Justice P.N. Bhagwati


Public Interest Litigation or PIL is today the most important and easily available weapon to the citizens to enforce their fundamental right. Through PIL the limits on the scope of social litigations has been removed and now every person can approach the courts for the motive of social interest. PIL in India is the most striking innovation in delivering justice. But it is important to understand the essence and meaning PIL for better enforcement of the judicial philosophy behind bringing it into Indian judicial area

WHAT is a PIL?

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) as the name implies, is a litigation moved in interest of the public. Any topic which affects the public at large is brought into consideration of courts through PIL. Although no statute defines PIL nor does it have any recognition in codified law. PIL is evolved, interpreted and defined by courts. Initially the Indian judiciary was governed by the rule of “locus standi” which says that only the aggrieved party can approach the court of justice. In India it meant that only the person whose fundamental rights were violated could go to the Supreme Court. PIL is said to be the liberalized version of locus standi. This is because PIL widens the scope of litigations which can now be filed in the interest of the public. The courts now permit PIL at the instance of ‘social spirited citizen’ for the enforcement of any person or group of persons who because of their poverty or socio-economic position are unable to approach court. 


Initially Indian courts were unaware of the notion of PIL. The seeds of PIL were sown by Justice Krishna Iyer in the year 1979 in the case Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdulbhai Faizullabhai[i]. Till this time “locus standi” was supposed to be a rule of ancient vintage when private litigation prevailed the entire scenario and public litigation was yet to originate.

First reported case of PIL in India was Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar[ii]. The petition was filed by Adv. Kapila Hingorani who is also called ‘mother of PILs’. Case was decided by Justice P.N. Bhagwati. This case involved the plight of thousands of under trial prisoners (more than 40,000) languishing in various jails in Bihar.the PIL was filed on the basis of a report published in the Indian Express which was regarding the inhuman condition of under trial prisoners in jails of Bihar. 

Justice P.N. Bhagwati is said to be the messiah of PIL in India and credit for beginning a new era for PIL in India goes to him. It was he who came up with the concept of PIL in India. Justice P.N. Bhagwati said that- The court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.” 

More strength is given to PIl by widening its scope in many cases such as- S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India.

WHO can file a PIL?


A PIL can be filed by any individual or organization to protect, guard or enforce the rights of any person or group of persons or section of society who is unable to do the same being disadvantaged, oppressed or exploited. The concept of locus standi has been relaxed so that not just capable persons but also poor, illiterate, disadvantaged or disabled people may have access to justice. The only requisites or qualifications for filing a PIL are ‘acting in good faith’ and ‘sufficient interest’ to gain locus standi to file a PIL.

Also, the courts can take suo motu[iii] cognizance of issues concerning public interest.

Explaining the scope and who can file a PIL Justice P.N. Bhagwati in S.P. Gupta v. Union of India[iv] held that- “any member of the public having sufficient interest can approach the court for enforcing constitutional or legal rights of other persons and redressal of common grievances.

In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India[v] the Supreme Court observed that the rule of locus standi which confines the access to judicial process to only those to whom legal injury is caused, has now been jettisoned by the court and the narrow confines within which the rule of standing was imprisoned have been broken and new dimension has been given to the doctrine of locus standi which has revolutionised the concept of access to justice.

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[vi] the Supreme Court held that while deciding a PIL a court has to be more assertive than while deciding a traditional action. For the first time it was expressed that where a person or class of persons to whom legal injury is cause by the reason of violation of Fundamental Right, is unable to approach the court on judicial redress on account of poverty, disability, socially or economically disadvantageous position; any member of society acting bona fide can also move to the Supreme Court under Article 32, so that fundamental rights may become meaningful not only for rich and well-to-do who have the means to reach the court but also the large masses of people who are living a life of want and destitution and who are by the reason of lack of awareness, assertiveness and resources unable to seek judicial redress. A person who is a member of society may reach the court by just writing a letter and that person who is acting pro bono publico can not be compelled or asked to incur the expenses for such litigation. Only a letter in cases like this may be treated as ‘appropriate’ proceeding.

WHERE can a PIL be filed?

A PIL can be filed directly in the Supreme Court or High Court depending upon the situation by an Indian citizen. In  the Supreme Court under Article 32 and in High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution. 

HOW to file a PIL?

The procedure of filing a PIL is just like other petitions or a writ petition. However it has different modes which are listed below.

Modes of filing a PIL-

  1. By petition
  2. By letter
  3. Suo motu cognizance by court

I. By petition:

A PIL can be filed in the Supreme Court or High Court just like other writ petitions. The procedure is as follows-

  • The applicant should do proper research on the issue regarding which the PIL is to be filed.
  • It is advisable to consult a lawyer before proceeding ahead. However, a person can himself argue for his case or can appoint an advocate.
  • Once prepared, two copies of petition are to be submitted to the High Court and if the petition is to be filed in Supreme Court then five copies of petition are to be submitted. 
  • Alongwith petition in the case of High Court a copy of petition is to be sent to each respondent proof of which is to be attached with the petition submitted in the court. When the petition is submitted in the Supreme Court then a copy of the petition is to be furnished to the respondent only after the Hon’ble Supreme Court issues a notice.
  • A fee of Rs 50 per respondent  is to be submitted.

II. By letter:

A PIL can be filed by writing a detailed letter addressed  to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or Chief Justice of the High Court. The letter can be written by the aggrieved party or any other person or organization who is acting in good faith and has sufficient reason to fulfil locus standi. The letter should contain all the necessary facts and information regarding the issue.

A classic case of PIL by the mode of letter is Doon Valley Litigation[vii] where the Hon’ble Supreme Court took cognizance of the issue of excessive mining in Dehradun Valley region and delivered its judgement in the interest of the people residing there who were adversely affected by mining activities and ordered that sufficient steps should be taken to protect the environment.

III. Sou motu cognizance by court:

The Supreme Court or High Court can also take suo motu cognizance on the issues which they think are of public interest and need judicial intervention. 

The Supreme Court in Ramlila Maidan Incident[viii] took suo motu cognizance of the entire matter on the basis of a newspaper cutting and ruled in the favour of people’s interest.

In recent times also the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the problems faced by migrants while reaching their home towns during Covid period.

WHY to file PIL?

A PIL is the most convenient and acceptable way of enforcing the rights of those who can’t do it by themselves because of any reasons. Through PIL matters of utmost importance and which are affecting people adversely come into limelight. PIL is the most  powerful tool for those who work for society and rights of others. It is a sort of check on the legislative and administrative activities.

Following can be the grounds for filing a PIL-

  1. Matters of bonded labor
  2. Matters of neglected children
  3. Matters of non-payment of minimum wages
  4. Petitions filed from jails with the complaint of harassment, death in jail, speedy trial as a fundamental right, etc.
  5. Petitions against police for refusing to register a case, other social issues  etc.
  6. Petitions against atrocities on women, in particular harassment of bride, bribe-burning, rape, murder, kidnapping, abduction, etc.
  7. Petitions complaining harassment or torcher of persons belonging to scheduled caste and scheduled tribes or disadvantaged persons
  8. Petitions pertaining to environmental issues

Against WHOM a PIL can be filed?

A PIL can be filed only against the state (under Article 12) and not against private individuals. 

Landmark cases of PIL

There are many judgements regarding PIL. most important of them are listed below-

Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan[ix]

The judgment recognized sexual harassment as “a clear violation” of the fundamental  rights of equality, non-discrimination, life, and liberty, as well as the right to carry out any occupation. The guidelines, directed in this case towards the employers, include a definition of sexual harassment, a detailed list of steps for prevention of harassment, and a description of complaint procedures to be “strictly observed in all workplaces for the preservation and enforcement of the right to gender equality.” It promoted greater enforcement of women’s rights and broader application of international law at the High Court level. The case has thus been described as “path-breaking” and “one of the most powerful legacies” of PIL, and a “trendsetter” that “created a revolution” in the field of PILs.

Javed v. State of Haryana[x]

 In this case the Supreme Court upheld Section 175(11)(q) of Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 as being not unconstitutional and hence valid.

Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar[xi]

This case is regarded as the first PIL in India. In this case, the attention of the Court focussed on the situation of under-trials in Bihar who had been in detention because of pending trial for periods far in excess of the maximum sentence for their offences. The Court proceeded to make the right to a speedy trial the central issue of the case. Also, it  passed the order of release of approximately 40,000 under-trial prisoners who had undergone detention beyond such a maximum period.

C. Mehta v. Union of India[xii]

Also called “Ganga tanneries case” is a landmark judgement in Environmental Laws also. This case gave the label of fundamental right to the right to live in a pollution free environment under Article 21

Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India[xiii]

In this case a PIL was filed on the basis of a newspaper report. The court ruled that Preservation of human life is of paramount importance.

Current Situation

 Justice N. Krishnaswamy Reddy said that- ” It is the judiciary that decides the outcome so the onus is on it to ensure the protective role of the Public Interest Litigation,”

In India PIL are being used as a tool to enforce the rights of every person who is disadvantaged in any sense. In recent times many PILs are being filed in Courts. But, the problem here is that many people approach courts with matters that do not have the substantial ground to be brought into consideration. Because of this senseless use of such a precious tool the trouble of courts is being increased. It can increase the load on courts by increasing the number of pending cases. 


PIL is a very effective and powerful tool by which the rights of the unprivileged or disadvantaged can be enforced to the largest extent possible. Judicial Activism nurtures PIL. Indian judiciary has widened the scope of locus standi which has enabled each and every citizen to do something productive for their fellow citizens. Through this, citizens understand their fundamental duties as complimentary with the fundamental rights of others. Judiciary through PIL can keep a check on legislative and judicial activities. It is because of PIL that we can say that ‘judiciary stands as protector of our rights’. Although because of misuse of this golden arrow the ultimate aim of delivering justice somewhat gets disturbed. It’s the duty of each and every person to understand this and act judiciously.


[i] 1976 AIR 1455, 1976 SCR (3) 591

[ii] 1979 AIR 1819, 1979 SCR (3)1276. 

[iii] ‘on its own motion or accord’

[iv] AIR 1982 SC 149, 1981 Supp (1) SCC 87, 1982 2 SCR 365

[v] 1982 AIR 1473, 1983 SCR (1) 456

[vi] 1984 AIR 802, 1984 SCR (2) 67

[vii] 1985 AIR 652, 1985 SCR (3) 169 

[viii] 2012 Cr Lj 3516 (SC) 

[ix] AIR 1997 SC 3011

[x]  AIR 2003 SCC 522

[xi] 1979 AIR 1819, 1979 SCR (3)1276

[xii]  1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819

[xiii]  1989 AIR 2039, 1989 SCR (3) 997


Author- Poorva Gaurav Chaturvedi

Modi Law College, Kota

Author: Poorva G Chaturvedi,
Modi Law College, Kota

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