Public Intrest Litigation

By | January 1, 2017

Public Intrest Litigation

The traditional rule of locus standi is that a petition under article 32 can only be filed by an aggrieved person whose fundamental right is infringed. This rule emerged as all developed legal systems have to face the problem of adjusting conflict between two aspects of public interests namely,

(1) Encouraging individual citizen to participate actively in enforcement of law; and

(2) Undesirability of encouraging professional litigants.

This rule has now been considerably relaxed by Supreme Court in its recent rulings. The court now permits ‘social action litigation’ or ‘public interest litigation’ (pro bono publico litigation) at the instance of ‘public-spirited citizens’, for the enforcement of any constitutional or legal right of any person or group of persons who because of their poverty or socio- economic disadvantaged position or otherwise  being in custody are unable to approach the court for relief.

The expression ‘Public Interest Litigation’ (PIL) means ‘a legal action initiated in a court for enforcement of public interest.’ the grievance in a public interest action is about the content and conduct of government action in relation to the constitutional or statutory rights of segments of society and in certain circumstances the conduct of government policy. The doctrine of PIL applies to any case of public injury arising from:

(a) the breach of any public duty, or

(b) the violation of some provision of the constitution, or of the law

The relief to be granted looks to the future and is, generally, corrective rather than compensatory which, sometimes it also is. Public interest litigation involves collaboration and cooperation between the government and its officers, the bar and the bench, for the purpose of making human rights meaningful for the weaker sections of the community.

The traditional doctrine of standing means that judicial redress is available only to a person who has suffered (or is likely to suffer) a legal injury by reason of violation of his legal right or legally protected interest. However, there are a few exceptions to it, which have been evolved by the courts over the years. Thus, a tax payer of a local authority is accorded standing to challenge an illegal action of local authority. The reason for liberalization of the rule in the case of a tax payer of a municipality is that his interest in the application of the money of municipality is direct and immediate. The statute itself may expressly recognize the locus standi of an applicant, even though no legal right of the applicant has been violated resulting in legal injury to him.

For example, in JM Desai verses Roshan Kumar , the court noticed that the Bombay Cinematograph Act 1918 and the Bombay Cinema Rules, 1954 made under that act, recognized a special interest of persons residing, or concerned with any institution such as a school, temple, etc. located within a distance of 200 yards of the site on which the cinema house is proposed to be constructed and held that as the petitioner, a rival cinema owner, did not fall within the category of such persons having a special interest in the locality, he had no locus standi to maintain a writ petition.

In Sunil Batra verses Delhi Administration , the court accepted the habeas corpus petition of a prisoner complaining of a brutal assault by a head warden on another prisoner. in this case, the supreme court broadened the scope of habeas corpus by holding that this writ can be issued not only for releasing a prisoner from illegal detention, but also for protecting prisoners from inhuman and barbarous treatment.

In Dr. Upendra Baxi verses State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court permitted the petitioner, a law professor, to raise infringement of article 21 on behalf of the inmates of the Agra protective home, which was living in inhuman and degrading conditions.

In these cases, the court recognized the rights of a member of a class to initiate action when the whole class is likely to be affected by an action. however, for matters of public concern a person acquires locus standi not because he belongs to a class or he has any special interest or has suffered personal injury, but because being a responsible citizen he feels concerned about a matter.

Judicial self-restraint on exercise of power

(a) Locus standi (PIL) –

(b) Territorial extent of jurisdiction

Art. 226 permits high court within whose jurisdiction the cause of action in whole or in part arises to issue directions, orders, or writs to any government or authority notwithstanding that the authority or the government is located in Delhi if the cause of action in whole or in part arises in its jurisdiction.

The remedy provided under article 32/226 should be sought within a reasonable time. Inordinate delay in invoking the jurisdiction of the court may be good ground for refusing to grant relief. In the absence of any prescribed period of limitation, the only principle is that the court should not examine stale causes. But where the explanation offered for the delay is convincing and acceptable, the writ petition should not be dismissed on the sole ground of delay.

The delay caused on account of government machinery, administrative set-up, poverty of the petitioner, etc. is usually condoned by the courts. A departmental authority may delay the moving of higher court for oblique motives and the public interest may suffer if such cause is thrown out merely on the ground of some delay. However, where a government servant slept over the promotions of his juniors over his head for 14 years and then approached the high court challenging the relaxation of relevant rules in favour of the junior, the writ petition was liable to be dismissed. The exercise of the discretion by the court even where application is delayed is to be governed by the doctrine of promoting public interest and good administration.


PIL: uncertainty and guidelines

The grounds on which PIL would lie have been noted by the supreme court in State of HP verses Parent of a student of Medical College : “whenever the court finds that the executive is remiss in discharging its obligations under the constitution or the law so that the poor/underprivileged continue to be subjected to exploitation and injustice; or are deprived of their social and economic entitlements; or that social legislation enacted for their benefit is not being implemented, they can and must interfere and compel the executive to carry out its constitutional and legal obligations”.

However, the moment judiciary steps into the executive domain; it creates an illusion in the minds of the common men that it is the panacea of all ills. The necessary limitation of pil is that the jurisdiction cannot be allowed to be abused by a meddlesome interloper or a busybody or a personal action for personal gains, private profit or with political considerations.

Public interest litigation has been criticized on a number of grounds, viz. that it can be misused for private motive or political ends, that it would result in the tremendous increase in the litigation, that it would develop uncertainty as to the admission of the petition for hearing. it is said that there is no guideline as to the cases which should be admitted and the cases which should not be admitted. Due to this, the PIL has become unpredictable. Moreover, the court has no capacity to enforce its orders and in many cases the conditions have not changed.

In some cases, the affected parties addressed letters directly in the name of the judges of the Supreme Court and they used to convert the letters into writ petitions. This practice has been criticized on the ground that there would be a danger of litigants choosing a judge and in turn judges choosing their litigants. the suo motu action by judges based upon the news reports is criticized as thereby the judge assumes the role of advocate as well and thus acting against the judicial precept ‘nobody should be a judge in his own case’.


Mayank Shekhar
Author: Mayank Shekhar

Mayank is a student at Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Under his leadership, Legal Bites has been researching and developing resources through blogging, educational resources, competitions, and seminars.

What did I miss? Don't forget to leave your valuable feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.