What is Public Interest Litigation and What is Its Importance?

By Mayashree Acharya

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Updated on: Jun 6th, 2024

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10 min read

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) means a case or petition filed before a court to protect, safeguard or enforce public interest. Public interest means the interest or right belonging to the society, a particular class of the community or a group of people. PILs are filed to resolve a problem affecting the legal rights of a community or the public at large.

PILs are filed in the courts to safeguard group interests, not individual interests. It can be filed only in the Supreme Court of India or the State High Courts. PILs have become a powerful tool to enforce the legal obligation of the legislature and executive. The primary objective behind PILs is to provide justice to all and promote the welfare of the people.

What is Public Interest Litigation (PIL)?

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is not defined in any law, statute or act. It is filed before the courts under the Constitution of India to protect public rights and promote general welfare. The concept of PIL  originated in India from the power of judicial review. A PIL is filed in a court not by the aggrieved person but by a private person interested in public welfare and betterment of society.

Anyone can file a PIL for any matter affecting the interest of the public, such as road safety, pollution, construction hazards, terrorism, neglected children, atrocities on women, exploitation of casual workers, bonded labour, non-payment of minimum wages to workers, food adulteration, disturbance of ecological balance, maintenance of heritage and culture, etc. 

Importance of public interest litigation

PIL is a vital tool to enforce the human rights of those people who do not have access to them due to poverty or such other reasons. It also helps judicially monitor state institutions like protective homes, prisons, asylums, etc. PIL aims to facilitate common people to access the courts to seek redress in legal matters. It is a crucial tool for social change, accelerating the attainment of justice and law and upholding the rule of law.

PIL has been critical in bringing about political and social change in India and has been instrumental in exposing and addressing various issues affecting the public. PIL has been used to protect the rights of the marginalised, such as bonded labourers, slum dwellers and prisoners and helped to improve their living conditions. It is used for safeguarding group interests for which fundamental rights have been provided.

The original goal of PILs was to make justice available to the marginalised and underprivileged. It aimed to make justice accessible to everyone. Later on, the scope of PIL was expanded to implement the legal obligation of the executive and legislature through judicial review.

PILs guarantee judicial review of administrative actions through increased public participation. PILs have commonly been used to challenge the decisions of public authorities by the parameters of judicial review, the lawfulness of a decision or action, or to review a failure to act.

Who can file public interest litigation?

All Indian citizens or organisations can file a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India or the High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution of India. However, the person or organisation filing the PIL petition must prove to the court that the PIL is being filed for an issue concerning public interest and that it will benefit the public at large.

A PIL can only be filed against the Central Government, municipal governments or State Government and not against individuals. The Parliament of India, each State's Legislature, and all local or other authorities under the control of the government are included in the definition of a government.

How to file a public interest litigation?

Below are the steps to file a PIL:

Step 1: The person filing the PIL (known as the petitioner) must understand the issues concerning people at large by researching and consulting all the individuals or groups related to the issue.

Step 2: The petitioner must collect all the necessary information and documents as evidence to support the PIL petition.

Step 3: Draft the PIL petition containing the name of the court, name and address of the petitioner and opposite party (respondent), the article under which it is filed, facts of the case (facts and information of the issue concerning public) and the relief sought from the court.

Step 4: Send a copy of the PIL petition to the respondent.

Step 5: File the PIL petition with the Supreme Court or High Court along with the proof of sending the petition copy to all the respondents. If the petitioner files the PIL in High Court, he/she must submit two copies of the petition to the court and in the case of the Supreme Court, the petitioner must submit five copies of the petition to the court.

How much money is required to file a PIL in India?

The court fee for filing a PIL is Rs.50 per respondent. However, the expense of arguing the case in front of the court depends on the advocate the petitioner chooses.

Examples of public interest litigation cases

PILs have played an important role in India’s polity. They are responsible for some landmark judgements in India, such as the banning of triple talaq, opening the doors of the Sabarimala and the Haji Ali shrines to women, legalising consensual homosexual relations, legalising passive euthanasia, etc.

A few examples of PIL are as follows:

  1. Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar case: This case was the first reported instance of PIL in India, which brought attention to the issue of inhuman conditions of prisoners and undertrial prisoners. 
     
  2. Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan: This case is related to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, the Vishaka Guidelines came into effect, published in 1997, which provided employers with the definition of sexual harassment, a list of preventative strategies, and information on filing complaints of workplace sexual harassment.
     
  3. M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India: This case is related to pollution in the Ganges basin. The judgment criticised the local government for giving permission for untreated sewage from Kanpur’s tanneries to enter the Ganges. Directions were given to prevent the consequences of water and air pollution on millions of people in the Ganga basin and emphasised the need for sustainable development.
     
  4. Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India: This case was filed to facilitate hospitals to handle emergency accident cases without concern for pending police investigations. The judgment made it obligatory for a hospital or doctor, public and private, to provide immediate medical aid to a road accident victim.
     
  5. Javed vs. State of Haryana: In this case, the constitutionality of a population control provision governing the panchayat election was challenged. The Haryana Provision disqualified persons having more than two children from holding certain offices in panchayats. The court mainly emphasised the problem of population explosion as a global and national issue at the expense of protecting human rights. The court held that the Haryana Provision was well-defined and based on a clear objective to popularise family planning.

Public interest litigation advantages and disadvantages

Below are the advantages of PIL:

  • It ensures that public bodies are accountable by acting reasonably within the limits of their powers and ensures they make precise choices.
  • It expands the scope of law by helping the judges to understand legislation and develop laws.
  • It gives weak people a voice by emphasising a significant issue and gives them a platform to advocate their rights. 
  • It helps raise awareness of critical public problems through media coverage and debates.
  • Since the court fees are nominal, citizens can file a PIL to seek a reasonable solution for a public issue.
  • It helps to focus attention on broader public issues in the areas of consumer welfare, environment and human rights.

Below are the disadvantages of PIL:

  • Petitions without a significant public issue can waste the courts’ time.
  • The Indian Judiciary is already burdened with a heavy caseload due to pending cases, and PIL petitions may add to that burden. 
  • Sometimes, PIL may be abused by individuals pushing for personal grievances instead of championing public causes, and thus, public interest litigation may become private interest litigation.
  • The lack of effective implementation of court judgments is a significant issue hindering successful PIL implementation.
About the Author

I am an advocate by profession and have a keen interest in writing. I write articles in various categories, from legal, business, personal finance, and investments to government schemes. I put words in a simplified manner and write easy-to-understand articles. Read more

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Quick Summary

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) involves filing cases to protect public interest in the Supreme Court of India or State High Courts. PIL aims to enforce legislative and executive obligations, enhance access to justice, and promote social change. Anyone can file a PIL against government bodies. Legal costs for filing PILs are minimal. PILs have benefits like accountability, legal development, and raising awareness, but can also lead to court overload and misuse.

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