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Insights into Editorial: Reclaiming The PIL

Insights into Editorial: Reclaiming The PIL

11 February 2016

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Few recent incidents have indicated that the PIL (public interest litigation), which was envisaged as a means of providing access to justice to the disadvantaged is being misused in the recent times.

What is PIL?

‘Public Interest Litigation’ denotes a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest where the rights of an individual or a group have been affected.

Evolution of PIL in India:

In India, the first PIL, Hussainara Khatoon vs State of Bihar, was filed in 1979. It was filed on the basis of reports highlighting the pitiable conditions of prisoners awaiting trial for long periods.

  • This case led to the immediate release of about 40,000 prisoners and was the first action by public-spirited individuals entertained by the SC to protect the fundamental rights of unrelated disadvantaged and vulnerable sections.
  • Since then, the jurisprudence of the PIL has been developed through the collective efforts of concerned citizens and a responsive judiciary. Today, it constitutes a formidable tool to protect the rights of those lacking access to justice.
  • Over the years, the scope of the PIL has been expanded to include matters that might well affect the public at large but don’t necessarily relate to the realisation of human rights of the poor, disabled and marginalised.

Constitutional backing:

According to the jurisprudence of Article 32 of the Constitution of India, “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this part is guaranteed.” Ordinarily, only the aggrieved party has the right to seek redress under Article 32.

  • However, in 1981, Justice P. N. Bhagwati in his order allowed any member of public to approach court for an appropriate direction, order or writ.

PIL Vs Class Action:

PIL is often confused with class action, where a lawsuit is filed or defended by an individual acting on behalf of a group. Such attempts overlook the fact that the PIL is founded on constitutional provisions enabling the judiciary to depart from its traditional role of adjudication, along with the concomitant checks and balances.

  • In a PIL, in contrast to a class-action suit, the court may be flexible in its application of procedural law and go beyond the legal issues raised to assume new roles such as that of an ombudsman, a legislator and a monitor.
  • This is because PIL is essentially meant as a remedial jurisprudence for those who can’t approach the court on account of poverty or some other disability.

Criticisms of PIL:

The debates over the limits of Judicial Activism in the area of PIL, have been vigorous. A private members bill entitled “Public Interest Litigation (Regulation) Bill, 1996” was tabled in the Rajya Sabha.

  • The statement of objectives and reasons stated that PIL was misused in the name of providing justice to the poor sections of the society and also that PIL cases were given more priority over other cases which led to pending of several general section cases in the court for years. However the bill was not passed.
  • The ever expanding scope of PIL has also posed many challenges to the apex court.

Why we need PIL?

  • In Public Interest Litigation (PIL) vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy because there is only a nominal fixed court fee involved in this.
  • Further, through the so-called PIL, 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.

Demerits of PIL:

  • 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. Of late, 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.
  • 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.
  • The credibility of PIL process is now adversely affected by the criticism that the judiciary is overstepping the boundaries of its jurisdiction and that it is unable to supervise the effective implementation of its orders.
  • It has also been increasingly felt that 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.

Way ahead:

Of late, the SC and high courts appear to be mindful of the distinction between PIL for the poor and disabled and PIL relating to diffuse or collective rights, and are more cautious when entertaining the latter.

  • This is certainly a positive trend that will promote judicial restraint, particularly given that, in PIL cases, the court is not subject to the traditional safeguards on judicial role.

Their regulation:

With the view to regulate the abuse of PIL the apex court itself has framed certain guidelines (to govern the management and disposal of PILs.) The court must be careful to see that the petitioner who approaches it is acting bona fide 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 gain political objectives.
  • 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 invariably take into account its impact on those interests and the court must exercise greatest caution and adopt procedure ensuring sufficient notice to all interests likely to be affected.


PIL now does require a complete rethink and restructuring. Anyway, overuse and abuse of PIL can only make it stale and ineffective. Since 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 frivolous complaints. It is, indeed, time that the PIL was reclaimed for its original constituents by limiting it to matters concerning the protection of fundamental rights of the disadvantaged and underprivileged. This would help restore the legitimacy and efficacy not only of the PIL as a means of providing access to justice to the poorest of the poor, but also of the judiciary as an institution.