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PIL & its importance in Contemporary India

The term PIL,  ‘Public Interest Litigation’ comes from American law, where it was established to provide legal assistance to previously aggrieved groups such as the poor, racial minorities, unorganized consumers, citizens concerned about environmental issues, and so on.

PIL has risen to a position of prominence in our judicial framework. There is no explicit definition of the phrase in any statute. The meaning has developed over time as a result of numerous judgments. Simply put, any public-spirited person can file a petition with the court for a public cause, public interest, or public welfare. What constitutes “public interest” is a topic that frequently arises in this context. Clearly, “any conduct in the public interest is in the public interest.”

Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. M/s Abdulbhai Faizullabhai (1976 AIR 1455) and others were the first PIL filed in India in 1976. Justice Krishna Iyer planted the seed of the public interest lawsuit in this seminal decision. Soon after, thanks to Justice Bhagwati’s efforts, the concept of public interest litigation (PIL) arose and grew to a significant extent. In India, he is known as the Champion of PIL.

The other historic PIL is Hussainara Khatoon v. the State of Bihar (1979 AIR 1369), which was brought for prisoner’s rights. This case has also been referred to as the first PIL in India. The court’s attention was called in this case to the extraordinary circumstance of people facing charges in Bihar who had been jailed pending trial for periods far longer than the maximum term for the crimes they were charged with. The court not only made the right to a fast trial the core issue of the case but also ordered the release of nearly 40,000 people awaiting trial who had been detained for longer than the maximum term allowed.

Meaning of PIL

Ordinary litigation is not the same as public interest litigation. It does not entail the enforcement of one person’s rights against another. Rather, this form of lawsuit is brought to bring justice to the most marginalized members of society. The petitioner, the court, and the government are all working together on this. It is admirable that courts have taken all reasonable steps to allow public-spirited individuals and even non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to file petitions on behalf of those who are unable to contact the court. PIL (public interest litigation) is a sort of litigation that is supposed to safeguard the public interest, according to the Indian Constitution.

The unique aspect of this sort of litigation is that it is not essential for only the party who has been wronged to approach the court. Typically, the aggrieved parties do not bring such issues to court. The court has been given the power to approach the court for the exercise of court jurisdiction under this statute, regardless of a person’s relationship with the matter. As a result, a PIL is technically the power that the court grants to the public through judicial activism. Throughout history, such issues have been made aware of the court for a variety of reasons, including the aggrieved party’s lack of money to initiate litigation or the judicial system’s cornering of their right to approach the court. Furthermore, if the case is not brought before the court through a petition initiated by a public-spirited individual, the court has the authority to bring the matter into its own hands and continue suo moto. By passing different decisions and judgments in PILs, the Supreme Court has engaged in judicial activism.

Reasons for Growth of PILs

The character of the Constitution of India

Part III and Part IV of the Indian constitution, which deal with fundamental rights and directive principles, respectively, establish a framework for regulating the interaction between the state and its inhabitants.

Progressive civil litigation

Even though India is a developing country, its constitution contains some of the world’s most progressive social legislation. Forced or compulsory (debt slavery), worker exploitation, land ceilings, and other pressing issues are among those addressed by PILs in India. The courts’ provision has proven to be extremely beneficial to residents since it ensures that the poor and minorities are not overlooked while the executive deals with other issues.

Locus Standi

A person’s right or capacity to seek or appear in court on behalf of another person who is financially or physically incompetent of doing so is known as locus standi. One of the key reasons for the proliferation of PILs in India is the very liberal interpretation of Locus Standi. Judges have been known to act suo moto in response to newspaper articles or petition letters they have received.

Judicial assistance

Even though social-economic rights are enshrined in Part IV of the Indian constitution, the PILs are not legally enforceable. As a result, the courts have classified them as fundamental rights, making them legally enforceable. For example, under Article 21, the right to life includes the right to free legal assistance, to live in dignity, to receive an education, to work, to be free of torture, and so on.

Due to the vast nature of the social/economic vulnerability, there have been PIL cases where the petitioner has been unable to produce requisite evidence. To keep such scenarios in mind, the court established a commission whose primary purpose is before gathering information on facts that will be submitted to the bench later.

Filing a PIL

Any individual or organization(s) can submit a PIL in their own right, i.e., to protect or enforce a right owed to them by the government, or on behalf of a group of people who are disadvantaged or oppressed and are unable to enforce their rights. In the case of PILs, the idea of “Locus Standi” has been loosened to enforce Hon’ble Court to consider grievances filed on behalf of persons who are poor, illiterate, disadvantaged, or disabled and are unable to access the courts themselves. Only a person operating in good faith and with a significant stake in the outcome will have locus standi to file a PIL. A person who comes to the Hon’ble Court for personal advantage, private profit, political gain, or any other veiled motive will not be heard. The Court may also exercise suo moto jurisdiction.

PILs are Writ Jurisdiction’s expansions. As a result, PILs may be filed in either the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India or any High Court in India under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution. A simple letter or email is written to the Chief Justice of India or the Chief Justice of a High Court, on the other hand, might be sufficient. In the matter of Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun vs. State of Uttar Pradesh AIR (1989 SC 594), the Hon’ble Court turned a letter raising the issue of unlicensed and unregulated mining in Mussoorie Hills into a writ petition under Public Interest Litigation.

Importance of PIL

The basic purpose of filing a PIL is to give ordinary people access to the courts so that they can receive legal remedies. It is a significant social change tool that is utilised to sustain the rule of law, which in turn controls and balances the seriousness of law and justice. The primary goal of filing PILs is to enable impoverished and marginalized people with access to the courts since it is a crucial tool for redistributing human rights, consumer welfare, and environmental rights to those who have been denied them.

In other words, regardless of colour, gender, or economic/social standing, all people of the country have equal access to justice under this provision. Because only minor court fees are charged to file a PIL, this provision also provides a low-cost legal recourse. PILs are useful not just for democratizing access to justice, but also for monitoring state-run institutions such as prisons, protective homes, and asylums. It is also thought to be a vehicle for implementing the concept of judicial reviews in India.

Criticism & Misuse of PIL

No matter how much progress PILs have brought to the Indian judicial system, we cannot ignore the flip side of the coin at any cost, as PILs are increasingly being abused, and their use is becoming more widespread and abused. They have also brought with them several awards and disadvantages. As a result, interevent such abuses of PILs, the supreme court established a specific framework that will govern the handling and disposition of PILs. PILs have been used by many PIL activists in India as a convenient weapon for harassing the judicial system. 

In recent years, PILs have received a lot of criticism. One of the most common complaints is that by hearing PILs and engaging in Judicial Activism, courts are attempting to usurp legislative and executive functions. In Bandu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802), Justice Bhagwati stated that by executing the aforementioned tasks, the courts are only assisting in the realisation of the Judiciary’s constitutional objectives and are not usurping the powers of the Legislature and Executive. Another objection is the significant erosion of the locus standi concept. 

It has been suggested that this dilution has opened the floodgates for frivolous claims involving the litigant’s private interests, the desire for attention rather than justice, or the staging of political goals. The petitions have been dismissed in these circumstances, and the courts have imposed significant fees. This serves as a deterrence to others filing similar PILs in the future. 

Due to the low cost of filing PILs, numerous frivolous petitions are being filed without the need to pay significant court fees traditionally associated with civil litigation. As a result, bargains are formed to obtain money for the aggrieved party to obtain the PILs by filing such petitions. Any weapon that can be used to defend oneself can also be used to attack someone, according to the basic explanation. Using the same approach, the Locus Standi restrictions can be lowered, allowing motivated parties to file PILs that may be of public interest.

The abuse of PILs has become so out of control that its original aim has been lost among all the spurious cases brought by privately driven interests that are clones of ostensibly public interest cases.

Various political groups, for example, use PILs to exploit the judicial system to get around their challenges or when they are unable to attain the aim they desire. They take advantage of the concept of PIL to get closer to their goals and objectives.

Remedies

Taking into consideration that the judiciary is responsible for maintaining the use of PILs under check, the supreme court has utilised the following guidelines to manage the use and disposal of PILs:

The judiciary must ensure that the petitioning procedure for a PIL is not exploited or tampered with by politicians or the wealthy, resulting in the supremacy of corrupt political goals and the postponement of administrative action.

PILs have impacted a person’s rights in a variety of ways, even before hearing back from the courts. The most straightforward approach is for the courts to exercise caution and consider the interests of victims. The judicial system must establish a strategy that ensures that all of the interests of those who are likely to be affected by the judiciary’s actions are adequately notified.

Conclusion

To sum it up, “Indian PIL might rather be a Phoenix: a whole new creativity sprouting out of the ashes of the old order,” as Cunningham puts it. PIL is the first attempt by a growing common law country to break free from the centuries-old legal imperialism. It challenges the notion that the more western law is, the better it must operate for economic and social progress. It argues that legislation formed in developing countries, such as India, aided the development of underdeveloped men. The dissatisfaction with the formal legal system led to the shift from legal centralism to legal pluralism. 

In India, however, instead of attempting to establish a justice-dispensing mechanism, PIL was used to overthrow the formal judicial system. As we’ve seen, the changes are both significant and structural. It has fundamentally transformed the traditional judicial role, allowing the court to bring justice closer to the people. Furthermore, PIL is still in the experimental stage, it is respectfully submitted. Many flaws in managing this type of dispute are likely to surface upfront. However, by developing better procedures, these flaws can be addressed.

In short, the PIL establishes a new jurisprudence of governmental accountability for constitutional and legal infractions that harm the interests of the community’s weakest members. “Judicial activism earns its highest bonus when its orders remove some tears from some eyes,” a renowned judge once voiced his hope.

By Arryan Mohanty