Public-Interest Litigation is a legal contest fought judicially, to armor the public interest. It is introduced in a court of law, not by the aggrieved party but by the court itself or by any other private party. It is not necessary, for the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction, that the person who is the victim of the violation of his or her right should personally approach the court.
The traditional rule of “Locus Standii” that a person, whose right is infringed alone can file a petition, has been relaxed by the Supreme Court in its recent decisions. Now, the court permits public interest litigation at the instance of public spirited citizens for the enforcement of constitutional legal rights. Now, any public spirited citizen can move/approach the court for the public cause by filing a petition:
1. in Supreme Court under Art.32 of the Constitution;
2. In High Court under Art.226 of the Constitution; and
3. in the Court of Magistrate under Sec.133, Cr. P.C.
It is essentially a new legal ambit in which court of law can initiate and enforce action to serve and secure significant public interest. This initiative of judicial activism has opened new horizons for the poor and the destitute. This is definitely an inexpensive medium of judicial consolation for the ones in need.
However, the person filing the petition must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the petition is being filed for a public interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body. In cases the victim does not have the necessary resources to commence litigation or his freedom to move court has been suppressed or encroached upon. The court can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed on its own, or cases can commence on the petition of any public-spirited individual.
The seeds of this socially conductive concept were sown in India by Kapila Hingorani, when In December 1979, she filed a petition regarding the condition of the prisoners detained in the Bihar jail, whose suits were pending in the court. The special thing about this petition was that it was not filed by any single prisoner, rather it was filed by various prisoners of the Bihar jail. The case got filed in the Supreme Court before the bench headed by Justice Krishnam Malhotra. This petition was filed by the name of the prisoner, Husnara Khatoon, hence the petition came to be known as Husnara Khatoon Vs State of Bihar. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld that the prisoners should get benefit of free legal aid and fast hearing. Because of this case 40,000 prisoners, whose suits were pending in the court, were released from the jail.
There after many cases like this have registered in the Supreme Court. It was in the case of SP Gupta vs Union of India that the Supreme Court of India defined the term Public Interest Litigation in the Indian Context. The concept of PIL is in harmony with the principles enshrined in Article 39A of the Constitution of India to protect and deliver prompt social justice with the help of law. Before the 1980s, only the aggrieved party could approach the courts for justice. After the emergency era the high court reached out to the people, devising a means for any person of the public (or an NGO) to approach the court seeking legal remedy in cases where the public interest is at stake.
PIL is a benign tool of Indian Law in the following contexts:
1. In PIL vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy because there is only a nominal fixed court fee involved in this.
2. Further, the litigants can focus attention on and achieve results pertaining to larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, consumer welfare and environment.
However, it has encountered the following incommodities:
1. The genuine causes and cases of public interest have in fact receded to the background and irresponsible PIL activists all over the country have started to play a major but not a constructive role in the arena of litigation. Many of the PIL activists in the country have found the PIL as a handy tool of harassment since frivolous cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil litigation and deals could then be negotiated with the victims of stay orders obtained in the so-called PILs.
2. The flexibility of procedure that is a character of PIL has given rise to another set of problems. It gives an opportunity to opposite parties to ascertain the precise allegation and respond specific issues.
3. The credibility of PIL process is now adversely affected by increasing misuse of PIL by people agitating for private grievance in the grab of public interest and seeking publicity rather than public cause.
In a bid to regulate the abuse of PIL, the apex court itself has framed certain guidelines in reference with the governance, management and disposal of PILs. The court must be careful to see that the petitioner who approaches it is acting bonafide and not for personal gain, private profit or political or other oblique considerations. The court should not allow its process to be abused by politicians and others to delay legitimate administrative action or to satisfy malicious or personal political intentions. There may be cases where the PIL may affect the right of persons not before the court, and therefore in shaping the relief the court must take into account its impact on those must adopt procedure ensuring sufficient notice to all interests likely to be affected.
Even though it is very much essential to curb the misuse and abuse of PIL, any move by the government to regulate the PIL results in widespread protests from those who are not aware of its abuse and equate any form of regulation with erosion of their fundamental rights. Thus, intervention of the Supreme Court is required.
It is an extraordinary remedy available at a cheaper cost to all citizens of the country, it ought not to be used by all litigants as a substitute for ordinary ones or as a means to file inconsequential complaints.