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Public Interest Litigation

What is PIL?

A legal action brought in a court of law to protect the public or general interest in which the public or a class of the community has a financial interest or an interest that affects their legal rights or liabilities is referred to as public interest litigation.

The Public Interest Litigation marginalises those who have been the victims of insensitive treatment by fellow beings. It is considered as the only effective countermeasure to the growing threat of legal rights violations & transparency in public life and impartial judicial action.

History and Background

PIL got its start in India in the late 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. Justice VR Krishna Iyer and Justice PM Bhagwati of the Supreme Court of India delivered several landmark judgments that paved the way for new avenues in public interest litigation.

PIL is a method of obtaining justice and expressing grievances through the legal system for the people. The major goal is to give ordinary citizens access to the courts so that they can seek legal redress.

In recent years, public interest litigation, also known as social interest litigation, has gained new prominence, attracting the attention of all parties. In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has significantly relaxed the traditional rule of 'Locus Standi,' which states that only the individual whose right has been violated may file a petition.

In order to enforce constitutional and legal rights, the court will now consider public interest lawsuits brought by so-called "public-spirited citizens". Any public-spirited citizen can now petition the court for a public cause (in the public interest or welfare of the public) by filing a petition in the Supreme Court, the High Court, or the Court of Magistrate, as per Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, Article 226 of the Indian Constitution, or Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Developments In the Field of PIL

There have been significant advancements in the field of PIL.

In India during the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of litigation was in its infancy, and it was viewed as a private pursuit for the vindication of private vested interests.

Historically, litigation was primarily composed of actions taken and maintained by specific individuals, typically to resolve their own grievances or problems. As a result, the injured party or aggrieved party had sole authority to initiate and continue litigation. Nonetheless, the resources available to those individuals severely constrained their ability to do so. Few coordinated efforts or attempts were made to address broader issues affecting various consumer groups or the general public.

Accessibility: This all changed in the 1980s when India's Supreme Court pioneered the concept of public interest litigation (PIL). The Supreme Court of India made the law more accessible to all Indian citizens, as well as newly formed consumer or social action groups and ensured that their work reflected a broad public interest perspective.

Low Fee: Due to the low fixed court fee associated with Public Interest Litigation (PIL), vigilant citizens throughout the country can obtain an affordable legal remedy.

Advantages of PIL

Additionally, litigants can use the so-called PIL to draw attention to and achieve results on broader public issues, most notably those involving human rights, consumer welfare, and the environment.

It provides access to a National Forum of decision-making and power for those who have previously been voiceless and invisible. It is an effective tool for assisting financially disadvantaged groups that are unable to advocate for the common good.

  • PIL assures that all citizens are involved and participate in the legislative process. The PIL is a critical tool for ensuring the rule of law, effective access to justice, and meaningful realisation of fundamental rights.

  • Simultaneously, it is geared toward protecting human rights and even providing opportunities for those unfamiliar with the court's general procedure.

  • The PILs has the capacity to generate interest in and action on larger public issues, particularly in the areas of human rights, consumer rights, and environmental protection.

Disadvantages of PIL

  • Due to the increasing abuse of PILs, the Supreme Court was compelled to establish guidelines for the management and disposal of PILs.

  • PIL was used as an effective tool for harassment as frivolous cases can be filed without incurring the high court fees associated with private civil litigation, and settlements can then be negotiated with the victims of so-called PIL stay orders.

  • The lowering of the 'locus standi' requirement enables private interests to portray as public interests, just as a weapon designed for defence can be used equally effectively for an offence.

The abuse of PIL has outpaced its use, and genuine causes have either faded into obscurity or come under suspicion as a result of spurious causes promoted by privately motivated interests masquerading as public interests.

What are the guidelines for the use of PIL?

To curb the abuse of PILs, the Apex Court has enacted certain guidelines (to govern the management and disposal of PILS).

  • The court must exercise caution in determining whether the petitioner is acting in good faith and not for personal gain, private profit, political or other oblique considerations.

  • The court should not allow politicians and others to abuse its process in order to stall legitimate administrative action or advance political objectives.

Political pressure groups that are unable to achieve their objectives through the administrative or political processes may attempt to use the courts (via PILS) to advance their closely held aims and interests.

There may be instances where the PIL affects the rights of parties not before the court, and thus the court must invariably consider the impact on those interests when crafting the relief, and the court must exercise extreme caution and follow procedures that ensure adequate notice to all potentially affected parties.

While it is critical to curb the misuse and abuse of PILs, any attempt by the government to regulate them generates widespread opposition from those worders/injunctions who are unaware of their abuse and view any form of regulation as a violation of their Fundamental Rights. In these circumstances, the Supreme Court of India is required to intervene by incorporating safeguards provided by the civil procedure code in matters of stay orders / injunctions in the arena of PILs.

Additionally, the judiciary has stated that when a stay is obtained at the request of a private party or even a body litigating in the public interest, any interim order halting the project's progress must provide for reimbursement of costs to the public in the event that the litigation initiated by such an individual or body ultimately fails.

In other words, the public must be compensated for both the delay in completing the project and the cost increase caused by the delay.


Public Interest Litigants from across the country have been outraged by such court decisions. They fear that this will spell the end of the PIL concept as a people-friendly concept.

  • However, India's bona fide litigants have nothing to fear. Only those PIL activists who file frivolous complaints will be required to compensate the opposing party.

  • Additionally, it is worth noting that the Consumers Protection Act, 1986 has been amended to provide compensation to opposing parties in the event of frivolous consumer complaints.

  • PIL represents the first attempt a develop a common law country to break away from legal imperialism after centuries of waiting.

However, in India, rather than seeking to evolve a mechanism for dispensing justice, the formal legal system was abolished through PIL.

It has fundamentally altered the traditional judicial role, enabling the court to bring justice to the average person.

In essence, the PIL establishes a new jurisprudence regarding the state's accountability for constitutional and legal violations that adversely affect the interests of the community's weaker members.


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