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The term Public Interest Litigation simply means litigation in the interest of public. This term was first used by Prof. Abram Chayes in 1976. It is also known as Social Action Litigation (SAL). The term PIL comes from US jurisdiction where it was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups & interests. Such groups and interests include poor, environmentalists, consumer, racial and ethnic minorities and others. Thus PIL may be described as a litigation in the interest of the “voiceless voices” to secure their legal rights and entitlements.
Idea of PIL came from actio popularis of Roman Jurisprudence, which allowed court access to every citizen in matters of public wrong. It is a judge led and judge induced strategy which represents the high benchmark of judicial creativity and sensitivity to the problems of the weak and vulnerable. In India the very idea of PIL comes from the oath which the judges take for combating exploitation and injustice. A PIL can be initiated by any public spirited person or group on behalf of any aggrieved. Thus the locus standi is liberally construed in the field of PIL to allow standing to any pro bono public.
Justice PN Bhagwati, in the landmark judgment SP Gupta v. Union of India (AIR 1982 SC 149), expressly articulated that when a legal right has been breached and the individual is unable to approach the court for relief, any member of the public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, both with the High Court and the Supreme Court.
In keeping with the spirit of PIL, which is to increase the access to justice, there are a few conditions that a petition must meet. They are, firstly, the complaint cannot be against a private party, and secondly, it must be a bona-fide complaint that is not frivolous in nature. Within this broad framework, PILs have emerged as a powerful tool in the hands of the people. The courts have accepted even letters and telegrams as petitions.
Notable case laws:
1.Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration (1980) 3 SCC 488 – Court allowed access to a prisoner complaining about brutal attack and assault by a head warden on a fellow prisoner on the ground of class standing.
2. Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (1984) 3 SCC 161 – A public spirited organization approached the court for the release of bonded laborers working in stone quarries.
3. People Union of Democratic Rights v. Union of India (1987) 1 SCC 265 – The Supreme Court entertained petition by a public spirited organization for compensation on behalf of persons who were victims of unjustified police atrocities.
4. MC Mehta v. Union of India (1987) 1 SCC 395 – On a PIL petition by a SC lawyer, the SC granted relief to the victims of gas leak from the Shriram Fertilizer and Chemical Plant in Delhi and a principle of absolute liability was introduced.