Public interest litigation is known to everyone yet its actual definition and scope is not fully understood by the common man. So, what does this really mean for the common man? Does it solve your disputes faster and boost your access to justice? Not exactly! But first, let’s decode the legal concept of ‘locus standi’ in a layman’s language. ‘Locus standi’ simply means that you can file a case when you have ‘locus standi’, as the aggrieved person whose right has been infringed or violated. Without ‘locus standi’, your case cannot be heard or sustained in a court of law.
What is Public Interest Litigation?
Now a public interest litigation refers to a petition that is filed in a court of law for the protection of public interest. This means you don’t have to be the victim or the aggrieved person! You can be an individual, a citizen group or an NGO. This also means that public interest litigation has made it possible for those who are neither ‘aggrieved’ nor ‘victims’ to approach the court for justice if the matter is one that affects common people and gives them an opportunity to get legal redress.
Public Interest Litigation in India: Which court to file?
But which court to file is the next question? A PIL can be filed in any of the High Courts or the Supreme Court.
Now, how do you figure out whether the cause you are fighting for can be classified as ‘public interest’ in a court of law? For instance, you cannot file a service related matter as PIL, or a rent related dispute as PIL. So, what are the common areas where PILs are filed and taken up for hearing in Indian courts?
Take a look at some examples:
For easy reference, here are some examples of public interest litigation cases:
Public Interest Litigation in India: Significant Milestones That Paved the Way
According to Attorney General KK Venugopal, ”one would have to commend the role played by the constitutional courts in India till date in protecting the human rights of the poor. The Supreme Court, for instance, has treated various facets of poverty such as the right to food, right to shelter, right to employment, right to medical facilities,.etc. as part of the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This has enabled Indian courts to attempt to enforce these rights as they now create a positive obligation on the state.
A humanistic interpretation of the law forms the crux of Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer’s landmark judgment in Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration, (1978) 4 SCC 494, and it paved the way for many more judgments pertaining to prison reforms and prison justice in India. In his judgment, Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer wrote, “The necessary sequitur is that even a person under death sentence has human rights which are non-negotiable and even a dangerous prisoner standing trial has basic liberties which cannot be bartered away.”
How Pro-poor Jurisprudence Developed in India
It is Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer’s pro-poor, humane interpretation of laws that paved the way for ‘social context judging’ for the first time in the Judiciary and his judgments, brick by brick, built pro-poor jurisprudence around the same. But can a humanistic approach be a determining factor in say, a criminal case? Once again, it all began with Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer, who argued that the Constitution of India stands for humanism and his legal craftsmanship came to the forefront of many such social issues to interpret the law in such a manner that the poor and the marginalised sections of the society were benefited.
For instance, in Ediga Annamma vs State of Andhra Pradesh, AIR 1972 SC 799, Justice VR Krishna Iyer was confronted for the first time with a rare situation in which a woman was sentenced to death under Section 302 IPC and he listed reasons at several places to build on the argument of the ‘Humanism of the Indian Constitution. He explored penological theories to build on his argument that death penalty for the accused woman should be avoided – as you can understand from this, his approach was always to achieve a different, more just and humanistic result in the exercise of interpreting the law, even in a criminal case.
Further, Justice P.N. Bhagwati’s landmark judgment in Hussainara Khatoon & Others vs Home Secretary, State of Bihar, AIR 1979 SC 1369 made the following observations that still emerges as valid and important on any legal discussion or debate pertaining to the scope of public interest litigation in India:
1. The poor are priced out of our legal system…the poor in their contact with the legal system have always been on the wrong side of the line.
2. The law is regarded by them as something mysterious and forbidding, always taking away from them and not as a positive and constructive social device for changing the social economic order and improving their life conditions….
3. The result is that the legal system has lost its credibility for the weaker section of the society.
While there are no doubts about the positive changes brought about by courts across the country in the context of PILs, there is also a disturbing trend highlighted recently during the VR Krishna Iyer Memorial Lecture 2018 by Attorney General KK Venugopal.
Why Courts Are Not Considering the Rights of Third Parties in PILs?
Referring to the ‘far reaching effect of judicial activism of the court’, Attorney General KK Venugopal pointed out as part of the VR Krishna Iyer Memorial Lecture 2018, “Usually courts do not take an adversarial position in public interest litigations. Judges work along with the government department and agencies and guide them to make human rights accessible to the poor…. It cannot be ignored that the Court, in its anxiety to do justice in a particular matter has, at times, failed to take into account the far reaching effects of its judgments which may result in the deprivation of the basic rights of a multitude of third parties who are not there before the Court at that time.”
Explaining this further, Attorney General KK Venugopal said, “In PILs, what is brought before the Court is the hardship, the deprivation or the violation of human rights of a class of persons. The Court concentrates on providing relief to this Class. In such cases, the court does not seem to be concerned about the far reaching impact of its decision on other sections of the people, or the other activities which would stand affected. If this be so, rather than doing great good, it also does harm…..Should not the judgment balance such deprivation as against the benefits in favour of the immediate beneficiaries of the PIL? No steps are taken to alleviate the sufferings of innocent third parties who would inevitably be impacted by the judgment of the court. This is a travesty of justice and can never be the role of the Court as the defender of fundamental rights under the Constitution.”
A futuristic solution is what Attorney General KK Venugopal proposes, “My suggestion is that every PIL should set out the immediate and direct effect of the writ being granted as against innocent third parties whose livelihood or any fundamental or legal rights would be directly affected. It is only if the Court is satisfied that its intervention on behalf of the PIL petitioner will not disrupt the life or the rights of another section of people, who are innocent of wrong doing, that the Court would consider admitting the petition in public interest and granding final reliefs.”
This means that courts should admit public interest litigation only if it is satisfied that it will not disrupt the legal rights or fundamental rights of a class of innocent third parties.
Summing up, while public interest litigation in India is bound to grow by leaps and bounds, but as the Attorney General for India has pointed out, a balance needs to be maintained by courts so that it will not adversely impact the rights of innocent third parties.