On May 12, 2022, the Allahabad High Court dismissed a plea seeking the opening of 22 locked rooms of Taj Mahal, based on a petition that was filed by Rajneesh Singh. In the same case, the High Court also observed that the petitioner failed to point out which of his legal rights or constitutional rights were infringed. The Court also warned the petitioners to not to make a mockery of the PIL or Public Interest Litigation system.

As such in the contemporary time, it is crucial for the denizens to know about the PIL system, its usages and how it can play a cardinal role in developing society in terms of ensuring equity and justice for all. 

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) plays an important role in ensuring the effective functioning of the government and promoting the welfare of its citizens. It is a legal action brought to safeguard ‘Public Interest’ in a court of law to redress genuine public wrong or injury.

As such the 17th Chief Justice of India, Justice P.N. Bhagwati in the case of SP Gupta v. Union of India (1982) rightly quoted,

“The Court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.” 

PIL is not defined under any Statute or Act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the interest of vast majority of people residing in India. Supreme Court defined PIL as- “A legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or a class of community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected”.

The concept of PIL is suited to the principles enshrined in Article 39A of the Constitution of India to protect and deliver social justice with the help of law. Before 1980s only the aggrieved party could approach the courts for justice. But after the introduction of PIL in India any public-spirited citizen or a social organization can move to court for the enforcement of the rights of any person or group of persons who because of their poverty or ignorance or socially or economically disadvantaged position are themselves unable to approach the court for the remedies. 

Public Interest Litigation can be filed in the Supreme Court or High Court by invoking the writ jurisdiction under Article 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution respectively and under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the Court of Magistrate.

In fact, Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar (1979) was the first PIL case to be publicly known. It focused on the inhumane treatment of prisoners and those awaiting trial. In 1979, Kapila Hingorani filed a petition and secured the release of almost 40000 undertrials from Patna’s jails, as such she is also known as the ‘Mother of PILs’ as a result of this successful case.

Kapila Hingorani

It was post this landmark case, Supreme Court emphasized the right to speedy trial and ordered the release of under trial prisoners who had been in custody for extended periods without trials. Apart from this some of the landmark cases involving PIL include: S.P. Gupta v. Union of India (1981), Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (1984), Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1986), Parmanand Katara v. Union of India (1989), Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997), Animal Welfare Board of India v. A Nagaraja (2014) etc.

The Public Interest Litigation system or PIL has multifaceted dimensions attached to it for which it is considered to be a substantial legal step for upholding the spirit of the constitution and the concept of equality and equal protection of laws for all. It is considered to be one strong step that can be undertaken by the denizens when there are pertinent issues like violation of fundamental rights, environmental issues, corruption and accountability, protection of women’s rights, protection of child rights, prisoner’s rights, social welfare etc.

It is because of the PIL system then the denizens can often witness access to justice for marginalized and disadvantaged sections of society, safeguarding of human rights in issues such as custodial torture, extra-judicial killings, prevention of discrimination and violation of fundamental rights, protection of the environment from pollution, illegal mining, deforestation, promotion of good governance and prevention of abuse of power by public officials, expansion of judicial powers and its role in shaping public policy as well as social reforms in India by challenging discriminatory practices based on caste, gender, religion and other factors.

However, it has also been observed that the denizens of the country have more often than not also misused the provisions of the PIL system. The provision of PIL is misused by people by using it as a tool to register false cases and harass people. Since PIL is cheaper than private litigation, people file cases under PIL to settle personal vendetta, completely forgetting the concept of ‘public interest’.

Furthermore, in the course of time, PIL has also been used by a group of people to gain popularity and publicity amongst the masses, especially when these are filed against the government, to manipulate the common people’s thought process and compel them to develop a wrong narrative. But this section of people, who file PILs for some vested interest ignore the fact that it causes huge burden on the Indian Judiciary which already has the burden of 59,87,477 of pending cases across the country as on February 1 2023, as per data provided by National Judicial Data Grid.

But people filing frivolous PILs should not be of the opinion that it won’t cause them any penalty, because for filing of unnecessary PILs, Courts can also issue Contempt of Court, Legal Costs as well as bar on future filings, if it is satisfied to that effect. As such one should be very careful while using the provisions of PIL.  

Nevertheless, PIL has acted as catalyst for social transformation and has contributed to the development of a more inclusive and equitable society. But in order to enhance the effectiveness of PIL, it is necessary to strengthen the legal infrastructure, streamline procedure, and build capacity among all and most importantly by urging people to not to misuse it for personal benefit. If this can be ensured, then PIL will always remain a vital tool for upholding the public interest and ensuring a fair and equitable society.

The article is authored by Bishaldeep Kakati and Minakshi Kakati. Bishaldeep Kakati is an Advocate at Gauhati High Court and Minsakshi Kakati is pursuing LL.M from Cotton University.