Public Interest Litigation

PIL in broad terms means litigation filed in a court of law for the protection of “Public Interest” on the wide variety of subjects concerning citizens. The history: Public Interest Litigation popularly known as PIL can be broadly defined as litigation in the interest of that nebulous entity: the public in general. Prior to 1980s, only the aggrieved party could personally knock the doors of justice and seek remedy for his grievance and any other person who was not personally affected could not knock the doors of justice as a proxy for the victim or the aggrieved party.

As a result, there was hardly any link between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the laws made by the legislature on the one hand and the vast majority of illiterate citizens on the other. However, this entire scenario gradually changed when the post emergency Supreme Court tackled the problem of access to justice by people through radical changes and alterations made in the requirements of locus standi and of party aggrieved.

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The splendid efforts of Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were instrumental of this juristic revolution of eighties to convert the apex court of India into a Supreme Court for all Indians. As a result any citizen of India or any consumer groups or social action groups can approach the apex court of the country seeking legal remedies in all cases where the interests of general public or a section of public are at stake. Further, public interest cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil litigation.

Till 1960s and seventies, the concept of litigation in India was still in its rudimentary form and was seen as a private pursuit for the vindication of private vested interests. Litigation in those days consisted mainly of some action initiated and continued by certain individuals, usually, addressing their own grievances/problems. Thus, the initiation and continuance of litigation was the prerogative of the injured person or the aggrieved party. Even this was greatly limited by the resources available with those individuals.

There were very little organized efforts or attempts to take up wider issues that affected classes of consumers or the general public at large. However, these entire scenario changed during Eighties with the Supreme Court of India led the concept of public interest litigation (PIL). The development of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the country has, however, very recently uncovered its own pitfalls and drawbacks. 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.

They try to utilize this extraordinary remedy, available at a cheaper cost, as a substitute for ordinary ones. PIL- A Boon: 1. 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. 2. 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.

Abuse of PIL: However, the apex court itself has been compelled to lay down certain guidelines to govern the management and disposal of PILs. 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.

Just as a weapon meant for defense can be used equally effectively for offence, the lowering of the locus standi requirement has permitted privately motivated interests to pose as public interests. The abuse of PIL has become more rampant than its use and genuine causes either receded to the background or began to be viewed with the suspicion generated by spurious causes mooted by privately motivated interests in the disguise of the so-called public interests. Necessary Steps to be taken

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. At present, the court can treat a letter as a writ petition and take action upon it. But, it is not every letter, which may be treated as a writ petition by the court.

The court would be justified in treating the letter as a writ petition only in the following cases: (i) It is only where the letter is addressed by an aggrieved person or (ii) A public spirited individual or (iii) A social action group for the enforcement of the constitutional or the legal rights of a person in custody or of a class or group of persons who by reason of poverty, disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position find it difficult to approach the court for redress.

Even though it is very much essential to curb the misuse and abuse of PIL, any move by the government to regulate the PIL results in widespread protests from those who are not aware of its abuse and equate any form of regulation with erosion of their fundamental rights. Under these circumstances the Supreme Court of India is required to step in by incorporating safe guards provided by the civil procedure code in matters of stay orders /injunctions in the arena of PIL.

Public Interest Litigants, all over the country, have not taken very kindly to such court decisions. They do fear that this will sound the death-knell of the people friendly concept of PIL. However, bona fide litigants of India have nothing to fear. Only those PIL activists who prefer to file frivolous complaints will have to pay compensation to the opposite parties. It is actually a welcome move because no one in the country can deny that even PIL activists should be responsible and accountable.

It is also notable here that even the Consumers Protection Act, 1986 has been amended to provide compensation to opposite parties in cases of frivolous complaints made by consumers. In any way, PIL now does require a complete rethink and restructuring. It is however, obvious that 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.

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