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An Evolving Trend in Judicial Activism – ‘Public Interest Litigation’

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The Supreme Court 1 has defined PIL and observed that the “Public Interest Litigation is a cooperative and collaborative effort by the petitioner , the State of public authority and the Judiciary to secure observance of constitutional or basic human rights , benefits and privileges upon poor , downtrodden and vulnerable sections of the society .

The term Public Interest Litigation can be broken into – Public Interest and Litigation.   Black Law Dictionary2 has defined Public Interest – “Something in which the public, the community at large, has some pecuniary interest, or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected .It does not mean anything so narrow as mere curiosity, or as the interest of the particular localities, which may be affected by the matters in question.” The expression ‘Litigation’ means a legal action including all proceedings, initiated in a Court of Law with a purpose of enforcing a right or seeking a remedy. Therefore PIL means a legal action initiated by a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or a class of the community have pecuniary interest by which their legal liabilities are affected .

The seeds of the concept were sown in India by Justice Krishna Iyer in 1976, while disposing an industrial dispute in regard to the payment of bonus .3 After the germination of the seeds of the concept of PIL has nurtured and developed over the years with the help of various cases.

Nature of PIL Jurisdiction

The PIL Jurisdiction used by Supreme Court is an extension of its jurisdiction under Art.32 of the Constitution. PIL is not in the nature of adversary litigation but is an opportunity to make available the basic human rights available to the needy and deprived section of the community  and secure everyone socio and economic justice .

Relaxation of Locus Standi –

The important development in the matter of PIL is relaxation with regard to locus standi . It has been decided that court has to observe it from case to case as to whether the person approaching the court for relief has sufficient interest and has not acted with mala fide or political motive .4 In A.B.S.K Sangh (Railway) v. Union ofIndia5, an unregistered association was held entitled to maintain petition under Art.32 for the redressal of common grievance.

Bona fide of Petitioner necessary –

It is necessary that if an individual moves to court for the exercise of this jurisdiction, he must be acting bona fide and if he is acting for personal gain or private profit or other such consideration, the court should not allowed to be used at such instances .PIL can be allowed on if filed by person interested genuinely in the protection of society .



PIL was evolved by the Supreme Court for the purpose of providing justice to the down trodden , socially and economically weaker section of the society .PIL has evolved as a measure to ensure social justice guaranteed by the Constitution . In M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil NADU6, the Supreme Court issued direction for the welfare and protection of the children employed in match factories. In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India7, the Supreme Court passed order for the payment of minimum wages to the labourers. In Bandua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India8, the Supreme Court issued direction to Government to ensure the welfare of the bonded labourers.


Supreme Court has through PIL has from time to time passed orders and guidelines for the protection of ecology .M.C Mehta often described as the One Man Enviro – legal Brigade has filed many PIL’s against the polluting industries and protection of environment and is living example of success of PIL .In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India 9, the court ordered the disclosure of tanneries at Jajmau near Kanpur which were polluting the river Ganga. In Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum v. Union of India10, the Supreme Court in the complaint of water pollution due to discharge by tanneries of effluent in the river, it issued comprehensive direction for maintaining standards stipulated by Pollution Control Board.


In Legal Aid Committee v. State of M.P.11, the Supreme Court directed the setting up of an autonomous body of the management for administration of lunatic asylum .Supreme Court in Permanand Katara v. Union of India12, the court observed that it is a paramount obligation of ever member of medical profession to give medical aid to every injured citizen brought for treatment immediately without waiting for procedural formalities to be completed in order to avoid negligent death.


As the name Public Interest Litigation itself suggest litigation for public interest all matter concerning the latter are taken up by the Supreme Court .In Vineet Narain V. Union of India13, popularly known as Hawala Case , the Supreme Court directed CBI and revenue authorities to properly and expeditiously investigate the matter.


There has been a wide amount of discretionary power conferred on the public authorities which tend to be misused and used arbitrarily. The Supreme Court has used its jurisdiction to check theseabuse of discretionary powers. In Shiva Sagar Tiwari v. Union of India14, the Supreme Court affirmed the principles stated above and held that allotment of shops /stalls by then Minister of Housing and Urban Development to own relatives / employees/ domestic servants out of discretionary quota was without following any policy or criteria and was therefore wholly arbitrary, mala fide and unconstitutional .It was held that the said Minister was liable to pay Rs. 60 lakhs as damages to the Government Exchequer.


The explosion of judicial activism through PIL has pushed the judicial activism to the end of the road .The procedure and rules has now become redundant .This has brought uncertainty in law moreover an already divided Court into benches has further been divided. It is not being suggested that judicial activism through PIL is wholly undesirable , but certainly it should be used within defined limits .Undoubtedly , while deciding a PIL case , the Court may keep in mind the constitutional mandate of socio – economic transformation , but should note inherit legislative role . Justice V. Khaalid, in Sacchitanand v. State of West Bengal15 sound anote of caution over activism and suggested judicial restraint not only by the Court but also by the litigants. Courts can only give direction to the spirit of law but basic social or economic reforms do not fall within its ambit.


The concept of PIL is in consonance with the principle enshrined in Article 39A of the Constitution to protect and deliver prompt social justice with the help of law .Before the 1980s, only the aggrieved party could approach the court for justice. Filing a PIL is not same as a usual legal case ; there have been instances when letters and telegrams addressed to the courts have been taken up as PILs and heard .However there is concerned over the frivolous PILs and excessive PILs .To prevent excessive it may be suggested that judiciary should refrain from encroaching upon the areas which are exclusively within the domain of the legislature or the executive as provided under the constitution .There should be mandatory provision for the exemplary costs where PIL is found to be motivated and frivolous .


References –

  1. People’s Union of Democratic Rights & Othrs v. Union of India & Othrs (1982) 3SCC 235.
  2. Black’s Law Dictionary 6th
  3. Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdulbhai (1976)3SC 832.
  4. I.R. 1982 S.C. 1473.
  5. I.R. 1981 S.C. 298.
  6. I.R. 1991 S.C. 417.
  7. I.R. 1982 S.C. 802.
  8. I.R. 1984 S.C. 802.
  9. (1987)4 S.C.C. 463.
  10. I.R. 1996 S.C. 2715.
  11. I.R 1955S.C. 204.
  12. I.R 1989 S.C. 2039.
  13. I.R 1996 S.C. 3386.
  14. (1996) 6 S.C.C. 599.
  15. I.R. 1987 S.C. 1109.

Contributed By – Amit Kumar, Institute of Law, Kurukshetra University

Edited By – Nikita Goel, Convener, Students Reporter Committee, INBA

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