Public interest litigation

Public interest litigation - Constitutional Organs

Law-making has assumed new dimensions through judicial activism of law courts. Public Interest Litigation (PIL) or Social Action Litigation introduced by the Supreme Court of India in the Constitutional jurisprudence is a major example of Supreme Court’s judicial activism. 

Hitherto,  the  rigidity  of  the  locus stand  rule  deprived  the  poorer  sections  of  the society from approaching the courts for enforcement of their fundamental rights against the rich  and  affluent  class  of  society  but  now  the  public  interest  litigation  has  liberalized  the locus standee  rule  to  such an extent  that  it  has opened  new vistas  for  the  redressed  of the social problems.

About the PIL the Supreme Court has written, “The question “What PIL means and is”?  has  been  deeply  surveyed,  explored  and  explained  not  only  by  various  judicial pronouncements  in  many  countries,  but  also  by  eminent  judges,  jurists,  activist  lawyers, outstanding scholars, journalists and social scientists etc. with a vast erudition.

Basically, the meaning  of  the  words  ‘Public  Interest’  is  defined  in  the  OXFORD  ENGLISH DICTIONARY, as “the common well being is also public welfare”. 

PIL means a legal action initiated in the Court of Law for the enforcement of public interest  or  general  interest  in  which  the  public  or  a  class  or  community  have  pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are effected. 

PIL originated from the United States where it was firmly established around 1965. In England, it was started in the name of Citizens’ Action wherein any citizen could file a writ against public authorities for the cause of common man. 

In India, the seeds of PIL were sown by the Justice Krishna Iyer in 1976 in the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdulbhai. In this case, while disposing of an industrial dispute in regards to the payment of bonus, he observed: 

“Our  adjectival  branch  of  jurisprudence  by  and  large  deals  not  with  sophisticated litigants but the rural poor, the urban lay and the weaker societal segments for whom law will be an added  terror  if  technical  mis-descriptions  and  deficiencies  in  drafting  pleadings  and setting  out  the  cause  title  create  a  secret  weapon  to  non-suit  a  party.  Where  foul  play  is absent,  and  fairness  is  not  faulted,  latitude  is  grace  of  procedural  justice. 

Test  litigations, representative actions, pro bono public and like broadened forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who  wish to  by-pass  the  real issues  on  the  merits  by  suspect  reliance  on  peripheral procedural  shortcomings. 

Even  Art 226, viewed on  wider perspective, may be  amenable to ventilation of collective or common grievances, as distinguished from assertion of individual rights  although  the  traditional  view,  backed  by  precedents  has  opted  for  the  narrower alternative.  Public  interest  is  promoted  by  a  spacious  construction  of  locus  standi  in  our socioeconomic circumstances, and conceptual latitudinarianism permits taking liberties with individualization  of  the  right to invoke the  higher  courts  where  the  remedy  is shared  by  a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker. Less litigation, consistent with fair process, is the aim of adjectival law”.

The court permits public interest litigation at the instance of ‘public spirited citizens’ for the enforcement of the Constitutional and legal rights of any person or groups of persons who because of their poverty or socially or economically disadvantaged position are unable to approach the court for relief.

In A.B.S.K. Sangh (Rly) v. Union of India, it was held that the Akhil Bhartiya Soshit Karamchari  Sangh (Rly)  though an unregistered association could  maintain a writ  petition under  Art  32  for  the  redressal of  a  common  grievance. KRISHNA IYER,  J,  declared  that access  to  justice  through  ‘class  actions’,  ‘ public  interest  litigation’  and  ‘representative proceedings’ is the present Constitutional jurisprudence.

In the Judges Transfer Case the rule regarding the PIL was firmly established.  The court held that any member of the public having “sufficient interest” can approach the court for  enforcing  Constitutional  or  legal  rights  of  other  persons  and  redressal  of  a  common grievance.

BHAGWATI, J., observed: “Where a legal wrong or legal injury is caused to person or to a determinate class of persons  by  reason  of  violation  of  any  Constitutional  or  legal  right  and  such  person  or determinate class of persons is by reason of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, any member  of the  public can  maintain  an  application  for  an  appropriate direction  or  order  or  writ  in  the High  Court under Article 226 or  in  case  of breach  of any  Fundamental Right to  this  court under  Article 32.

Where the weaker sections of the community are concerned such as under-trial prisoners languishing in jails without trial, inmates of the Protective Home in Agra or Harijan  workers  engaged  in  road  construction  in  the  District  of  Ajmer,  who  are  living  in poverty and desolation, who are barely eking out a miserable existence with their sweet and toil, who are helpless victims of an exploitative society and who do not have easy access to justice, the Supreme Court will not insist on a regular writ petition to be filed by the public spirited individual espousing their  cause and seeking relief  for them.

The Supreme Court will readily respond to a letter addressed by such individual acting pro bono public. It is true that there are rules made by the Supreme Court prescribing the procedure for  moving it for relief under   Article  32  and  they  require  various  formalities  to  be  of  one  through  by  a  person seeking  to  approach  it.  But  it  must  not  be  forgotten  that  procedure  is  but  a  handmade  of justice  and  the  cause  of  justice  may  never  be  allowed  to  be  wasted  by  any  procedural technicalities. 

The  Court  will  therefore  unhesitatingly  cast  aside  the  technical  rules  of procedure in the exercising of its dispensing power and treat the letter of the public minded individual as a writ petition and act upon it”. 

Certain guidelines for taking precaution against misuse of PIL have also been given by BHAGWATI, C.J. In his words:

“But we  must  be careful to  see  that the member  of the  public, who approaches the court in case of  this  kind,  is acting bonafide  and  not  for  personal gain  or private  profit or political motivation or other oblique consideration. The court must not allow its process to be abused by politicians and others……” 

For example, in the case of Janta  Dal  v.  H.S. Chowdhari  ‘  (Bofors  Gun  case),  the petitioner  tried  to  abuse  the  Public  Interest  Litigation  for  political  purposes. Similarly, Krishna Swami V/s. Union of India,  Simranjit  Singh  Mann  v. Union of India  can  also  be included  in  this  category.  PIL jurisdiction has been actually evolved for socio-economic justice. Supreme Court has pointed out that “the compulsion for the judicial innovation of the technique of a public interest action is the Constitutional promise of a social and economic transformation to usher in an egalitarian social order and a welfare State. Effective solutions to the  problems  peculiar  to  this  transformation  are  not  available  in  the  traditional  judicial system.

The proceedings in a public interest litigation are, therefore, intended to vindicate and effectuate  the  public  interest  by  prevention  of  violation  of  the  rights,  Constitutional  or statutory, of sizeable segments of the society, which owing to poverty, ignorance, social and economic  disadvantages  cannot themselves assert and quite  often not even  aware  of  those rights. The  technique  of  public  interest  litigation  serves  to  provide an  effective remedy  to enforce these rights and interests”.

Thus under this jurisdiction Supreme Court proceeded to secure social justice to the weaker section of the society. It observed in People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India.

“The time has now come when the courts must become the courts for the poor and struggling masses of this country.  They must shed their character as upholders of the established order and the status quo. They must be sensitized to the need of doing justice to the larger masses of people to whom justice has been denied by a cruel and heartless society for generations. It is through public interest litigation that the problems of the poor are now coming  to  the  forefront  and the  entire  theatre  of the  law  is  changing.  It holds out greater possibilities for the future. 

Main grounds on which PIL is available are as follows:

 Protection of weaker sections of society.-

Public or  social interest  litigation  is innovative strategy  which  has been evolved  by the Supreme Court for the purpose of providing easy access to justice to the weaker sections of Indian humanity and it is a powerful tool in the hands of public inspired individuals and social  action  groups  for  combating  exploitation  and  injustice  and  securing  for  the underprivileged segments of society, their social and economic entitlements.

In Lakshmi Kant Pandey v. Union of India a writ petition was filed on the basis of a letter complaining of malpractices indulged in by social organizations and voluntary agencies engaged  in  the  work  of  offering  Indian  children  in  adoption  to  foreign  parents.  Certain principles and norms were laid down in this case which were to be followed in determining whether a child should be allowed to be adopted by foreign parents.

In M.C. Mehta Vs Union of India it was held that the children cannot be employed in match  factories  which  are  directly  connected  with  the  manufacturing  process  as  it  is  a hazardous  employment  within  the  meaning  of  the  Employment  of  Children  Act,  1938.  In many  cases  Supreme  Court  has  passed  orders  and  issued  directions  for  the  welfare  and protection of labor.

The  court  also  has  the  power  under  Article  32  to  award  costs  of  public  interest petition  to  the  petitioner  who  was not in legal profession  but  brought an important  matter before the court for its consideration. In Sheela Barse v. Union of India the Court directed the Central Government to pay to the petitioner, a social worker, Rs. 10,000 for the expenses and to extend all necessary assistance to him as he offered to personally visit different parts of the country to verify whether the information submitted by the Authorities regarding children bellow the age of 18 years detained in jails in different States of the country was correct.

Similarly, in D.C Wadhwa V/s  State of  Bihar  the petitioner,  a  Professor of  Political Science  who had  done  substantial  research  and  was  deeply  interested  in  ensuring  proper implementation  of  the  Constitutional  provisions,  challenged  the  practice  followed  by  the State of Bihar in re promulgating a number of ordinances without getting the approval of the legislature. The Court held that the petitioner as a member of public has ‘sufficient interest’ to maintain a petition under Art. 32. The Court directed the State of Bihar to pay Rs. 10,000 to Dr. Wadhwa whose research brought to light this repressive practice.

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India the Supreme Court issued directions to Government to ensure the welfare of bonded labourers.

In Consumer Education and Research Center V/S. Union of India” the Supreme Court held asbestos factories or companies to be bound to compensate the workmen for the health hazards which were the cause for disease a workman was suffering from.

 Protection of ecology and environmental pollution.-

In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v/s State of U.P.,  the  Court  ordered  the  closure  of  certain  lime  stone quarries on  the  ground that there  were  serious deficiencies  regarding safety and  hazards in them.

Similarly,  in  Shriram  Food  and  Fertilizer   case,  the  Supreme  Court  directed  the company  manufacturing hazardous and lethal  chemicals and  gases  posing danger to health and  life  of  workmen  and  people  living  in  its  neighborhood,  to  take  all  necessary  safety measures before reopening the plant.

litigation was  instituted  to  check invasion  of  the right  to  life  of  individuals  by  pollution caused  by private sector companies. In India Council for Enviro Legal Action v. Union of India a public interest litigation was  instituted  to  check invasion  of  the right  to  life  of  individuals  by  pollution caused  by private sector companies. 

In M.C Mehta V/s. Union  of  India,”  the  Supreme  Court  ordered  the  closure  of  the tanneries at Jajmau near Kanpur, polluting the Ganga; the matter  was brought to the notice of the court by the petitioner, a social worker, through public interest litigation.

In M C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court directed that hazardous and noxious industries to be shifted away from Delhi as per provision of the Master Plan prepared under National Capital Region Planning Board Act.

In M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court directed the closure of mining operations within 2 km.  radius of  Badkhal  Lake  and  Suraj  Kund  and  further  directed  that mining leases within areas of 2 to 5 km. should not be renewed unless no objection of State and Central Pollution Control Board was obtained.

Securing human rights and human dignity.-

In  Ramesh  v. Union  of  India”  it  has been  held  that  public  interest  litigation  for  ensuring  communal  harmony  is  maintainable under  Art 32 of the Constitution.

In a judgment of far reaching importance in Parmanand Katara v. Union of India the Supreme Court held that it is a paramount obligation of every member of medical profession (Private  or Government)  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. The matter was brought to the notice of the court by petitioner, a human right activist, fighting for general public interest.

In an important judgment in National Federation of Blind V/s U.P.S.C. the Supreme Court  held 

that  the  visually  handicapped  persons  are  eligible  to  compete  and  take  civil services examination in the categories of Group ‘A’  and ‘B’ posts which are suitable for the handicapped in Braille script or with the help of a scribe. 

In National Human Rights Commission v. State of Arunachal Pradesh public interest litigation was instituted to restrain the Government of Arunachal Pradesh driving away from the State Chakma Refugees from Bangla Desh. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the right  to  life  and  equality  clause  is  applicable  to  every  person  whether  he  be  a  citizen  or otherwise. 

Epistolary  jurisdiction  of  the  Supreme  Court  and  the  High  Court  is  added  new dimensions

to the  scope  of PIL  in  India. Under this jurisdiction, even ordinary letters and newspaper cuttings have been treated as writ petitions and the courts have initiated suo motu action against the erring Authorities.

In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, an organization dedicated to the cause of release of bonded labors’ informed the Supreme Court through a letter that they conducted a survey of the stonequarries situated in Faridabad District of the State of Haryana and found that there  were a  large number  of laborers working in these stone-quarries  under “inhuman and  intolerable  conditions”  and  many  of  them  were  bonded  laborers.  The Supreme Court said: “Article 21 assures the right to live with human dignity, free from exploitation. The State is under a Constitutional obligation to see that there is no violation of the fundamental right of any person, particularly when he belongs to the weaker sections of the community and is unable to wage a legal battle against a strong and powerful opponent who is exploiting him. Both the Central Government and the State Government are, therefore, bound to ensure observance  of  social  welfare  and  labor  laws  enacted  by  Parliament  for  the  purpose  of securing  to  the  workman  a  life  of  basic  human  dignity  in  compliance  with  the  Directive Principles of State Policy”.

In Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India the court said that the right to life ensures to workmen right to health and medical care.  Matters of public interest.-

In  Vineet Narain v. Union of  India  (Hawala case), the Supreme  Court  directed  CBI  and  revenue  authorities  to  properly  and  expeditiously investigate the matter. The Supreme Court has been exercising this jurisdiction to check arbitrary and mala fide acts by public servants. In Common Cause a, Registered Society v. Union of India, a PIL was  filed  challenging  the  allotment  of  petrol  pumps  made  by  Minister  for  Petroleum  and Natural Gas, Captain Satish Sharma, from discretionary quota as arbitrary and mala fide and illegal. The Supreme Court found the allotments to be arbitrary, discriminatory, mala fide and illegal and directed the Minister to pay a sum of Rs 50 lakhs as exemplary damages to the Government Exchequer. However, the direction as to payment of exemplary damages was set aside in judicial review.

Similarly in Shiva Sagar Tiwari v. Union of India the Minister for Housing and Urban Development was held liable to pay Rs 60 lakhs as exemplary damages to the Government Exchequer for the arbitrary, mala fide and unconstitutional allotment of shops/stalls by the Minister to his own relatives/employees/domestic servants out of discretionary quota.

 Granting of reliefs.-

In Delhi Judicial Service  Associations  v. State  of Gujarat” the petitioner  had  filed  a  PIL  before  the  Supreme  Court  that  the  Chief  Judicial  Magistrate  of Nadiad, Gujarat  had  been  arrested, assaulted,  handcuffed and  humiliated  by police  officers and prayed for taking action against the police officers for committing contempt of court and for saving the dignity and honor of judiciary. The Supreme

Court on finding the truth sent those police officers to jail. The area of PIL has been growingly widening.  The  rule  of  locus  standi  has  been further  relaxed  and  High  Courts  are  also  exercising  jurisdiction  under  Article  226  of  the Constitution in this matter.

 Interaction of social forces and law

In  all  societies  intersection  of  social  forces  and  law  tend  to  mould  each  other.  In democratic societies it is articulate and clearly discernible. In the words of Friedmann, “In a democracy the interplay between social opinion and the law moulding activities of the State is more obvious and articulate one. Public opinion on vital social issues constantly expresses itself  not  only  through  elected  representatives  in  the  Legislative  Assemblies,  but  through public  discussion  in  press,  radio,  public  lectures,  pressure  groups  and,  on  a  more sophisticated  level,  through  scientific  and  professional  associations,  universities  and  a multitude of other channels.

Because of this constant interaction between the articulation of public opinion and the legislative process,  the  tension  between  the  legal and the  social  norms  can  seldom be  too great.  It  is  not  possible  in  a  democratic  system  to  impose  a  law  on  an  utterly  hostile community.  But,  a  strong  social  ground-swell  sooner   or  later  compel  the  legal  action. Between  these  two  extremes,  there  is  a  great  variety  of  the  patterns  of  challenge  and response.  On the one hand, law may an irresistible tide of social habit or opinion. 

On  the other hand, a determined and courageous individual or small minority group may initiate and pursue  a  legal  change  in  the  face  of  governmental  or  Parliamentary  lethargy,  and  an indifferent  public  opinion.  Such legislation as now exists in many countries for the preservation of forests or wild life, or the conservation of other vital resources has been the belated result of the determined efforts of small group of men who saw beyond the immediate interest not only of vested interests but of the ordinary legislator and government execution”.

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