Edited Excerpt from Justice Bhagwati’s Judgment in SP Gupta Case

It is essential to the maintenance of the rule of law that every organ of the State must act within the limits of its power and carry out the duty imposed upon it by the Constitution or the law. If the State or any public authority acts beyond the scope of its power and thereby causes a specific legal injury to a person or to a determinate class or group of persons, it would be a case of private injury. So also if the duty is owned by the State or any public authority to a person or to a determinate class or group of persons, it would give rise to a corresponding right in such person or determinate class or group of persons and they would be entitled to maintain an action for judicial redress.

But if no specific legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class or group of persons by the act only to public interest, the question arises as to who can maintain an action for vindicating the rule of law and setting aside the unlawful action or enforcing the performance of the public duty. If no one can maintain an action for redress of such public wrong or public injury, it would be disastrous for the rule of law, for it would be open to the State or a public authority to act with impunity beyond the scope of its power or in breach of a public duty owed by it.

The courts cannot countenance such a situation where the observance of the law is left to the sweet will of the authority bound by it, without any redress if the law is contravened. The view has therefore been taken by the courts in many decisions that whenever there is a public wrong or public injury caused by an act or omission of the State or a public authority which is contrary to the Constitution or the law, any member of the public acting bona fide and having sufficient interest can maintain an action for redressal of such public wrong or public injury.

The strict rule of standing which insists that only a person who has suffered a specific legal injury can maintain an action for judicial redress in relaxed and a broad rule is evolved which gives standing to any member of the public who is not a mere busybody or a meddlesome interloper but who has sufficient interest in the proceeding. There can be no doubt that the risk of legal action against the State or a public authority by any citizen will induce the State or such public authority to act with greater responsibility and care thereby improving the administration of justice.

Liberating the Rule of Locus Standi

Lord Diplock rightly said in Rex v. Inland Revenue Commissioners [1982] A.C. 617, 740):

It would, in my view, be a grave lacuna in our system of public law if a pressure group, like the federation, or even a single public-spirited taxpayer, were prevented by outdated technical rules of locus standi from bringing the matter to the attention of the court to vindicate the rule of law get the unlawful conduct stopped….. It is not, in my view, a sufficient answer to say that judicial review of the actions of officers or departments of Central Government is unnecessary because they are accountable to Parliament for the way in which they carry out their functions.

They are accountable to Parliament for what they do so far as regards efficiency and policy, and of that Parliament is the only judge; they are responsible to a court of justice for the lawfulness of what they do, and of that the court is the only judge. This broadening of the rule of locus standi has been largely responsible for the development public law, because it is only the availability of judicial remedy for enforcement which invests law with meaning and purpose or else the law would remain merely a paper parchment, a teasing illusion and a promise of unreality. It is only by liberalising the rule of locus standi that it is possible to effectively police the corridors of power and prevent violations of law.

It was pointed out by Schwartz and H. W. R. Wade in their Book on Legal Control of Government at page 354:

Restrictive rules about standing are in general inimical to a healthy system of administrative law. If a plaintiff with a good case is turned away, merely because he is not sufficiently affected personally, that means that some government agency is left free to violate the law, and that is contrary to the public interest. Litigants are unlikely to expend their time and money unless they have some real interest at stake. In the rare cases where they wish to sue merely out of public spirit, why should they be discouraged?

It is also necessary to point out that if no one can have standing to maintain an action for judicial redress in respect of a public wrong or public injury, not only will the cause of legality suffer but the people not having any judicial remedy to redress such public wrong or public injury may turn to the street and in that process, the rule of law will be seriously impaired.

It is absolutely essential that the rule of law must wean the people away from the lawless street and win them for the court of law.

There is also another reason why the rule of locus standi need to be liberalised. Today we find that law is being increasingly used as a device of organised social action for the purpose of bringing about socio-economic change. The task of national reconstruction upon which we are engaged has brought about enormous increase in developmental activities and law is being utilised for the purpose of development, social and economic. It is creating more and more a new category of rights in favour of large sections of people and imposing a new category of duties on the State and the public officials with a view to reaching social justice to the common man.

Individual rights and duties are giving place to meta-individual, collective, social rights and duties of classes or groups of persons. This is not to say that individual rights have ceased to have a vital place in our society but it is recognised that these rights are practicably meaningless in today’s setting unless accompanied by the social rights necessary to make them effective and really accessible to all. The new social and economic rights which are sought to be created in pursuance of the Directive Principles of State Policy essentially require active intervention of the State and other public authorities.

Amongst these social and economic rights are freedom from indigency, ignorance and discrimination as well as the right to a healthy environment, to social security and to protection from financial, commercial, corporate or even governmental oppression. More and more frequently the conferment of these socio-economic rights and imposition of public duties on the State and other authorities for taking positive action generates situations in which a single human action can be beneficial or prejudicial to a large number of people, thus making entirely inadequate the traditional scheme of litigation as merely a two-party affair.

For example, the discharge of effluent in a lake or river may harm all who want to enjoy its clean water; emission of noxious gas may cause injury to large numbers of people who inhale it along with the air; defective or unhealthy packaging may cause damage to all consumers of goods and so also illegal raising of railway or bus fares may affect the entire public which wants to use the railway or bus as a means of transport.

In cases of this kind it would not be possible to say that any specific legal injury is caused to an individual or to a determinate class or group of individuals. What results in such cases is public injury and it is one of the characteristics of public injury that the act or acts complained of cannot necessarily be shown to affect the rights of determinate or identifiable class or group of persons: Public injury is an injury to an indeterminate class of persons. In these cases the duty which is breached giving rise to the injury is owed by the State or a public authority not to any specific or determinate class or group of persons, but to the general public.

In other words, the duty is one which is not correlative to any individual rights. Now if breach of such public duty were allowed to go unredressed because there is no one who has received a specific legal injury or who was entitled to participate in the proceedings pertaining to the decision relating to such public duty, the failure to perform such public duty would go unchecked and it would promote disrespect for the rule of law.

It would also open the door for corruption and inefficiency because there would be no check on exercise of public power except what may be provided by the political machinery, which at best would be above to exercise only a limited control and at worst, might become a participant in misuse or abuse of power.

The Role of Attorney Generals in Public Spirited Cases

We have undoubtedly an Attorney-General as also Advocates General in the States, but they do not represent the public interest generally. They do so in a very limited field; see Section 91 and 92 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. But, even if we had a provision empowering the Attorney-General or the Advocate General to take action for vindicating public interest, I doubt very much whether it would be effective.

The Attorney-General or the Advocate General would be too dependent upon the political branches of government to act as an advocate against abuses which are frequently generated or at least tolerated by political and administrative bodies. Be that as it may, the fact remains that we have no such institution in our country and we have therefore to liberalise the rule of standing in order to provide judicial redress for public injury arising from breach of public duty or form other violation of the Constitution or the law.

If public duties are to be enforced and social collective ‘diffused’ rights and interests are to be protected, we have to utilise the initiative and zeal of public-minded persons and organisations by allowing them to move the court and act for a general or group interest, even though, they may not be directly injured in their own rights.

It is for this reason that in public interest litigation – litigation undertaken for the purpose of redressing public injury, enforcing public duty, protecting social, collective, ‘diffused’ rights and interests or vindicating public interest, any citizen who is acting bona fide and who has sufficient interest has to be accorded standing.

The Meaning of ‘Sufficient Interest’

What is sufficient interest to give standing to a member of the public would have to be determined by the occur in each individual case. It is not possible for the court to lay down any hard and fast rule or any strait-jacket formula for the purpose of defining or delimiting ‘sufficient interest’. It has necessarily to be left to the discretion of the court. The reason is that in a modern complex society which is seeking to bring about transformation of its social and economic structure and trying to reach social justice to the vulnerable sections of the people by creating new social, collective ‘diffuse’ rights and interests and imposing new public duties on the State and other public authorities, infinite number of situations are bound to arise which cannot be imprisoned in a rigid mould or a procrustean formula.

The judge who has the correct social perspective and who is on the same wavelength as the Constitution will be able to decide, without any difficulty and in consonance with the constitutional objectives, whether a member of the public moving the court in a particular case has sufficient interest to initiate the action.


SP Gupta v. Union of India (1981)