Apr 25,2019 | 10 min read

What is Public Interest Litigation and how does it work in India?

Author: Associate Runa Jasia

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) implies a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public or general interest in which the public or general class of the community have some pecuniary or other interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected. An individual or group of people can directly file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India and High Courts of India. The litigation is introduced in a court of law by the court itself and not by the aggrieved party or by any other private party. For the exercise of the court's jurisdiction, it is not necessary that a person, whose rights have been violated, should personally approach the court. Transparency in public life & appropriate judicial action is the right answer to check the increasing menace of breach of legal rights. The conventional rule was that right to move to the Supreme Court was the only available to those whose fundamental rights were infringed.

Public interest litigation is the power that the courts have given to the public through judicial activism. However, the victim or the person filing the petition must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the appeal is being filed for public interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body. The abuse and overuse of PIL can only make it ineffective and stale. PIL is an extraordinary remedy available at a considerably lower price to all the citizens of the country; it is not supposed to be used by litigants in substitution for ordinary ones or as a means to file complaints of frivolous nature. 

Filing a PIL:

There are no such conditions in the filing of Public Interest Litigation. Any individual can issue a Public Interest Litigation. The only requirement is that the same has to be presented in Public Interest.  The vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy in a PIL because of only a nominal fixed court fee involved in the process. In ordinary cases, it is seen that the aggrieved party, i.e., the victim, who is affected, has to file his claim in a court of law. That person should have an interest in the dispute.

When it started:

PIL began in India towards the end of the 1970s and came into full bloom in the 80s. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and Justice PM. Bhagwati, Hon'ble Judges of the Supreme Court of India, delivered landmark judgments which opened up new vistas in PIL. Prior to this, the first legal aid office was established in New York in 1876. In the 1960s the PIL movement began to receive financial support from the office of Economic Opportunity. It was started in the United States. 

According to the circular issued by the Supreme Court of India dated 1st December 1988 (1.12.1998), a few guidelines have been published that are to be followed for letters/ petitions received. The Supreme Court excludes certain cases in which PIL cannot be filed-

o   Landlord- Tenant matters

o   Services matter and those pertaining to Pension and Gratuity

o   Admission to medical and other educational institutions

o   Petitions for early hearing of cases pending in High Court and Subordinate Courts

Certain documents need to be enclosed along with the PIL that is to be filed in the SUPREME COURT of India:

ü  Court fee of Rs. 50/- per petition

ü  Application for interim relief, stay exemption, etc.

ü  Affidavit of the petitioner.

ü  Memo of appearance, Rs. 5/- Court fee.

ü  1+5 copies of the Writ Petition duly bound is to be filed.

Further, litigants can focus attention on and achieve results, through the PIL, from larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, environment, and consumer welfare. Public interest litigation is a part of the process of participate justice and standing in civil litigation of that pattern must have liberal reception at the legal doorsteps. Petitions can be filed by post and electronically as well online or just writing an E-mail addressed to the Chief Justice of India will do the job. Requests that are not in the interest of the public can be treated as writ petitions, subject to the discretion of the concerned Judge of the Supreme Court or High Court. 

 A PIL can be issued against any authority that comes within the purview of a ‘state' as defined under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution including the Central government, state governments, municipal corporations, etc. PIL has proved to be an essential instrument to bring social changes. PIL works for everyone irrespective of their caste, class and gender. The introduction of this tool has proved beneficial for India as a developing country.

Now, any public-spirited citizen can move or make an approach to the court of law for the public cause (in the interest of the public or general welfare) by filing a petition against:


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.

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