What is Public Interest Litigation?

14 Jun 2021  Read 22379 Views

The concept of “Public Interest Litigation” has been borrowed from the American Jurisprudence. In USA, it was designed in the 1960s, to provide legal representation to the previously unrepresented groups lie the minorities, people from the custody, migrant laborers, forced bonded laborers and other backward classes. It was established with the view that ordinary marketplace for legal services fail to provide fair services to these segments of the society.

In other words, Public Interest Litigation, means the litigations filed in the court of law for the protection of the public interest. Although, PIL has not been defined in any act or statute, it mainly focuses on the following areas:

  • Basic human rights violation of the poor

  • Conduct of the government policy

  • Violation of other fundamental rights

Through PIL,

  • The vigilant citizens are provided with an inexpensive legal remedy as there is a fixed court fees in this, which is nominal.

  • The litigants can achieve results related to the public issues at large when it comes to the protection of their basic rights.

In India, PIL is a result of the Judicial Activism role of the Supreme Court. It was introduced by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and Justice P.N. Bhagwati in the early 1980s. The first ever PIL is the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar and it dates back to 1979 when a public interest activist lawyer filed the case on behalf of thousands of prisoners of Bihar jail in regards to the inhuman condition of the prison. The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice P.N. Bhagwati stated the right for free legal aid and expeditious trail of the prisoners which led to their release.

Meaning of PIL

Public Interest Litigation refers to the litigations filed before the court of law for the protection of the Public Interest. The introduction of PIL in India was due to the relaxation of traditional rule of “locus standi”. This rule stated that only the person whose rights have been violated has the power to move the court for remedy. PIL is an exception to this rule. Also known as Social Interest Litigation, Article 32 of the Indian Constitution allows for the practice of Public Interest Litigation in which letters written by public-spirited people or organizations alleging violations of fundamental rights are converted into petitions. Thus, any member of the public with sufficient interest can approach the court for enforcing the rights of other people. PIL is necessary for the maintenance of Rule of Law. 

Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati

Born in December 1921, P.N. Bhagwati was the 17th Chief Justice of India, who served the office from July 1985 until his retirement in December 1986. He is considered to be the pioneer of judicial activism in India. He came up with the concept of public Interest Litigation and Absolute Liability in India. His contribution to legal aid and law for the poor people was recognized by the President of the World Congress on Human Rights held in 1989. He was appointed to observe the working of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry for the alleged infringement of human rights in Sri Lanka. 

From easy access to justice to the stances on locus standi and judicial activism, P.N. Bhagwati has provided the Indian judicial system with the power to transform societal structures which would be, otherwise, denied the basic fundamental rights.

Characteristics of PIL

With the progress of PIL, several issues have been incorporated, yet common characteristics encompass these litigations. These are:

  • PILs are termed as non-adversarial litigations that pits the interest of one party over another. Instead of focusing on the traditional mode of litigation, PIL is recognized as a tool for social change.

  • PILs are based on the principles of the citizens and the representatives which expands the rights of the third-parties to approach the court.

  • PIL from its introduction is aimed at remedial purposes which creates a dynamic, welfare-oriented model of judiciary. It thus incorporates the Directive Principles, the claims of which cannot be directly brought before the Courts, into the domain of fundamental rights under part III of the constitution.

  • PIL also strengthens the role of the judiciary as a watch-dog over other organs of the government which are the executive and the legislature. Fear of being dragged to the Court has improved the quality of the institutions such as jails. Protective homes, in the country.

Scope of PIL

The Supreme Court formulated a set of guidelines, in 1998, that are to be followed for entertaining letters and petition received by it as PIL. These guidelines were further modified in 1993 and 2003. The letters and petitions that are recognized under PIL are:

  • Bonded Labor Matters

  • Neglected Children

  • Non-payment of minimum wages to the workers.

  • Atrocities on women, in particular, rape, murder, kidnapping and harassment of bride.

  • Food adulteration

  • Environmental Pollution

  • Petitions from jail regarding inhuman treatment, death in jail, speedy trail.

  • Petitions from Riot-Victims.

  • Harassment of villagers by co-villagers or police.

Exceptions- The cases that do not fall under the category that will be entertained as PIL are:

  • Landlord-tenant matter.

  • Service matter pertaining to pension and gratuity.

  • Admission to medical or other educational institution.

  • Complaints against Central and State Government and Local Bodies.

  • Petitions for early hearing of the cases that are pending in the High Courts or Subordinate Courts.

Principles of PIL

The Supreme Court laid down the following principles in regard to PIL. These are:

  • The Constitution of India under Articles 32 and 226, allows the Court to entertain a petition filed by any public interested person in the welfare of the people who are in a disadvantaged position and thus cannot access the court. The Courts are bound to protect the fundamental rights of these people.

  • Whenever injustice is meted out to a large number of people, the court will not hesitate to invoke article 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution as well as the International Convention on Human Rights which provide for a fair trial.

  • When the Court is prima facie satisfied that there has been a violation of any constitutional right to a group of people belonging to the backward category, it may not allow the state to question the maintainability of the petition.

  • Even though procedural laws are applied on PIL cases, the question as to whether the principles of res judicata or principles analogous thereto would apply depends on the nature, facts and circumstances of the petition.

  • Dispute between two groups purely in the realm of private law would not be allowed to be agitated as PIL.

  • In cases, where the petitioner has moved the court for his private interest and the redressal of personal grievances, the Court in furtherance of public interest, may treat it as a PIL.

  • The Court shall not transgress into a policy. It shall take utmost care to not transgress its jurisdiction while protecting the rights of the people.

Guidelines for Admitting PIL

PIL has become as important part in the administration of law. With the advent of PIL, they have been misused for personal gains which has led to frivolous litigation on unnecessary issues. Hence, the Supreme Court has laid down the guidelines for checking the misuse of PIL.

  • The Court should encourage bona fide PIL and effectively discourage the PIL field for extraneous considerations.

  • Every High Court should formulate a set of rules for encouraging the genuine PIL that are filed and discourage PIL filed for reasons relating to personal gains.

  • Each Court should prima facie verify the credentials of every petitioner before acknowledging the PIL.

  • The Court should be prima facie satisfied with the contents of the PIL before acknowledging it.

  • The Court should be satisfied with the fact that the PIL involves a substantial public interest.

  • The PIL should involve a large public interest, the gravity and urgency of which must be given priority.

  • The Court must ensure that the PIL aims to redress public injury and that no personal gain is involved in it.

Landmark Judgement

In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, a PIL was filed in the matter of the Ganga water getting polluted, to prevent any further pollution of the water. The Supreme Court held that although the petitioner is not an owner, he is entitled to move the court for the enforcement of statutory provision, as he is a person who is trying to protect the lives of the people who use the water of Ganga on a daily basis.


Public Interest Litigation has had astonishing results since its introduction. PIL has developed a new jurisprudence of the accountability of the state for legal violations affecting the interests of the backward category. However, the Judiciary must be cautious in the application of PILs to avoid Overreach which violates the principle of Separation of Power.

About the Author: Antalina Guha | 29 Post(s)

Antalina Guha, is in the  5th year of B.A. LL.B course in Ajeenkya DY Patil University, with a core interest in Intellectual Property Rights and Criminal law.

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