Public Interest Litigation

  • August 11, 2017
  • 9:25 am
  • Pranshu Holkar

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) means the legal action intiated in a court of law for the protection of interest of general public in which the public or class of community have pecuniary interest by which their legal rights and liabilities are affected.“Public Interest” such as Pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, Constructional hazards etc. Any matter where the interest of public at large is affected can be redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a court of law. It is the litigation which is in the interest of general public introduced in the court of law by the court itself (suo moto), or by any other private party rather than the victim or aggrieved party. In a PIL, the right to file suit is given to a member of the public through judicial activism.

Courts have now acknowledged that where there has been violation of constitutional or legal rights of persons by reason of their socially or economically disadvantaged position are unable to approach the court for judicial redress or their right to move court has been supressed or encroached upon. In such cases the court itself took cognizance of the matter or a member of the public could move the court for enforcement of such rights of such persons.

Public Interest Litigation is not defined in any statute or any act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large. Although, the main and only focus of such litigation is “Public Interest”. Anyone can file the public Interest Litigation. The only condition is that it has to be in public interest. There are various area where public interest litigation can be filed:

  1. Violation of basic human right of an individual.
  2. Compelling any authority to perform his duty.
  3. Government policies which are violating the rights.
  4. Violation of religious rights and fundamental rights.

History of PIL in India

Prior to 1980s, only aggrieved party of the case can file the petition or knock the door of justice to seek remedy for his grievances. In other words only affected parties have right to file the case (Locus Standi) and other person have no Locus Standi to do so. But all this scenario have gradually changed after the emergency. PIL had begun in India towards the end of 1970s and came into full bloom in the 1980s. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and Justice P.N. Bhagwati, honourable Judges of the Supreme Court of India delievred landmark judgements which opened up new vistas in PIL. The first case of PIL was focused on inhuman conditions of prisoners. In Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, the PIL was filed by an advocate Kapila Hingorani. She filed a petition regarding the condition of the prisoners detained in the Bihar jail. These proceeding led to the release of more than 40,000 undertrial prisoners. Right to speedy justice emerged as a basic fundamental right which had been denied to these prisoners. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld that the prisoners should get benefit of free legal aid and fast hearing.

Another case A new era of the PIL movement was heralded by Justice P.N. Bhagawati in the case of S.P. Gupta v. 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.

In 1982, the Supreme Court conceded that unusual measures were warranted to enable people the full realization of not merely their civil and political rights, but the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights, and in its far- reaching decision in the case of PUDR [People’s Union for Democratic Rights] vs. Union of India –it recognised that a third party could directly petition, whether through a letter or other means, the Court and seek its intervention in a matter where another party’s fundamental rights were being violated.

The Supreme Court in Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay and ors v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors., held that “In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice. Thus a private interest case can also be treated as public interest case”.

Public Interest Litigation that changed our lives forever

In Parmanand Katara v/s Union of India – Supreme Court held in the Public Interest Litigation filed by a human right activist fighting for general public interest that it is a paramount obligation of every member of medical profession to give medical aid to every injured citizen as soon as possible without waiting for any procedural formalities.

           In Council For Environment Legal Action v/s Union of India -: Public Interest Litigation filed by registered voluntary organisation regarding economic degradation in coastal area. Supreme Court issued appropriate orders and directions for enforcing the laws to protect ecology.

Supreme Court in Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra, issued certain guidelines. Supreme Court has broadened the meaning of Right to live with human dignity available under the Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution of India to a greatest extent possible. This was a historic judgment that dealt with the issue of custodial violence against women in prisons. This resulted in an order facilitating separate police lockups for women convicts in order to shield them from further trauma and brutality.

In Vishakha V. State of Rajasthan, Supreme court has laid down exhaustive guidelines for preventing sexual harassment of working women in place of their work.

In the landmark case of M.C. Mehta V. Union of India – In a Public Interest Litigation brought against Ganga water pollution so as to prevent any further pollution of Ganga water. Supreme court held that petitioner although not a riparian owner is entitled to move the court for the enforcement of statutory provisions, as he is the person interested in protecting the lives of the people who make use of Ganga water.

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, Supreme Court ordered for the release of bonded labourers. In Murli S. Dogra v. Union of India, the Supreme Court banned smoking in public places. In a landmark judgment of Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India, Supreme Court issued guidelines for rehabilitation and compensation for the rape on working women.

Procedure for Filing Public Interest Litigation

Filing Public Interest Litigation petition is filed in the same manner, as a writ petition is filed. The Procedure A Court fee of Rs. 50, per respondent have to be affixed on the petition. Proceedings, in the PIL commence and carry on in the same manner, as other cases. However, in between the proceedings if the Judge feels that he may appoint the commissioner, to inspect allegations like pollution being caused, trees being cut, sewer problems, etc. After filing of replies, by opposite party, or rejoinder by the petitioner, final hearing takes place, and the judge gives his final decision.



However, the development of PIL has also uncovered its pitfalls and drawbacks. There are many cases where frivolous cases have filed without investment of heavy court fee as required in private civil litigation. The lowering of the locus standi requirement has permitted privately motivated interests to pose as public interests. PIL is being misused by the people agitating for private grievance in the grab of public interest and seeking publicity rather than espousing public cause. As a result the Apex Court compelled to lay down certain guidelines for the management and disposal of PILs.


It can be concluded that the PILs is a tool of social change. It is working for the welfare of the society. Anyone can go to the court for those people who are underprivileged, poor, weak, ignorant of legal redressal system or in a disadvantageous position due to their social or economical background. There are certain cases where the right of PILs have been misused for personal gain or for publicity not considering the interest of public. This can be controlled by using better techniques. Like, a person making frivolous complaint against the party, if it is proved that it was malicious complaint then the PIL activist have to pay compensation to other party. This is a welcome move to restrict the frivolous complaint under PIL. It is a cheaper remedy available to all the citizens of the country, it should not be misused for that the Supreme court by laying down the guidelines have strengthen their stance.