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Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Written by: Kethana Tamminaina


Public Interest Litigation, or PIL, is a type of litigation that seeks to protect the public interest. It refers to a lawsuit brought in a court of law to safeguard "Public Interest" issues such as pollution, terrorism, road safety, construction risks, and so on. Any dispute affecting the general public's interest can be resolved by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a court of law. It is introduced in a court of law, not by the injured party but by the court itself or by any other private party. It is not essential for the person who is the victim of a breach of his or her right to physically approach the court to exercise its jurisdiction. The objective is to provide a fair hearing to poor and disabled persons who lack the resources to represent themselves in court and enforce their basic rights.

There is no definition for public interest litigation in any statute or in any act. It has been elucidated by judges to take into account the general public's intention. It is the authority granted to the public by the courts through judicial activism. In the case of PILs, the principle of “Locus Standi” has been eased to make the Hon'ble Court to consider grievances submitted on behalf of persons who are poor, uneducated, underprivileged, or handicapped and are unable to approach the courts themselves. Having said that, only a person acting in a good faith and with a significant interest in the action will have the locus Standi to file a PIL. A person who approaches the Hon'ble Court for personal advantage, private profit, political benefit, or any other veiled reason shall be ignored.


The term Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is made up of two words; ‘Public Interest’ and ‘Litigation’. The words ‘Public Interest’ mean “an expression which indicates something in which the general public or the community at large has some pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.” The word ‘litigation’ on the other hand means “a legal action, including all legal proceedings initiated in a Court of Law to enforce a right or seek a remedy.”[i]


In the famous ‘Hussainara Khatoon' case, Kapila Hingorani filed a plea and gained the release of around 40000 undertrials from Patna's prison in 1979. Hingorani worked as a lawyer. This matter was brought before the Supreme Court by a Bench led by Justice P N Bhagwati. The court allowed Hingorani to continue the claim in which she had no personal locus standi, establishing PILs as a permanent fixture in Indian law. As a consequence of this winning lawsuit, Hingorani has been titled the "Mother of PILs”.


  • The purpose of a PIL is to provide ordinary people with access to the courts to get legal redress.

  • PIL is a crucial tool for social transformation and for upholding the rule of law and promoting the balance of law and justice.

  • The initial objective of PILs was to make justice available to the underprivileged and marginalised.

  • It is a vital instrument for bringing human rights to people who have been denied them.

  • It facilitates access to justice for all. Any individual or organisation with the ability to do so may file petitions on behalf of people who are unable or do not have the resources to do so.

  • It aids in the judicial oversight of state institutions such as prisons, asylums, and protective homes.

  • It is a crucial instrument for putting the notion of judicial review into practice.

  • The introduction of PILs ensures increased public engagement in judicial review of administrative action.


(a) Remedial in Nature

PIL's remedial nature deviates from typical locus standi standards. It embraced the concepts expressed in Part IV[ii] of the Indian Constitution into Part III of the Constitution in an indirect manner. The Indian Judiciary transformed the procedural nature of Indian law into a dynamic welfare one, by riding the ambitions of part III[iii] of the Constitution. The obvious instances of this transformation like the judiciary were Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India,[iv] Unnikrishnan v. The State of A.P.,[v] etc.

(b) Representative Standing

Representative standing is a creative extension of the well-known standing exception, which permits a third party to submit a habeas corpus petition because the injured person is unable to approach the court himself. In this way, the Indian idea of PIL is far broader than the American. PIL is a kind of class action that has been modified.

(c) Citizen standing

The concept of citizen standing thus represents a substantial expansion of the court's power, from protector of individual rights to defender of the rule of law whenever it is challenged by state illegality.

(d) Non-adversarial Litigation

In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India,[vi] the supreme court opined that “We wish to emphasize that public interest litigation…is a completely different kind of litigation from the typical traditional litigation which is basically of an adversary nature where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief”. Non-adversarial litigation has two aspects; Collaborative litigation and Investigative Litigation.

(e) Crucial Aspects

The added freedom in adhering to procedural laws. In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. The State of U.P.,[vii] the court rejected the Res Judicata defence. The court declined to dismiss the PIL and also awarded compensation. In Sheela Barse v. The State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court provided instructions to reduce custodial violence. To the greatest degree feasible, the Supreme Court has expanded the scope of the Right to Live with Dignity afforded under Article 21[viii] of the Indian Constitution.

(f) Relaxation of the strict rule of Locus Standi

The strict rule of locus standi has been modified by the introduction of (a) Representative standing, and (b) Citizen standing. In D.C.Wadhwa v. The State of Bihar,[ix] Supreme Court ruled that a petitioner, a professor of political science who had conducted an extensive study and was sincerely engaged in ensuring effective execution of constitutional principles, challenged the custom followed in Bihar State in re-promulgating the several ordinances without the consent of the legislature. The court ruled that the petitioner as a member of the general public has ‘sufficient interest’ to file a petition under Article 32.


PIL was first recognised solely in Habeas Corpus petitions, and afterwards in the context of under trial prisoners. PIL's scope grew over time, and it now includes the following topics:

  • atrocities against women, rape cases, murder, kidnapping;

  • children who are neglected;

  • child labour and child abuse;

  • instances involving bonded labour;

  • failure to pay workers the minimum wage;

  • complaints against police for refusing to register case involving custodial death or harassment by police;

  • harassment or torture against the oppressed and financially deprived class of individuals, especially women and children;

  • environment protection.


Any Indian citizen or organisation can move the court for a public interest/cause by filing a petition:

  • In the Supreme Court under Article 32[x]

  • In the High Court under Article 226[xi]

A letter can be treated as a writ petition by the court and acted upon. The court must be satisfied that the writ petition meets with the following requirements: the letter is sent by the aggrieved person or a public-spirited individual or a social action group for the enforcement of legal or constitutional rights to any person who, upon poverty or disability, are unable to approach the court for redress. The court may also take action based on newspaper reports if it is satisfied with the case.


PIL serves as an essential tool for social transformation. It works to improve the lives of people from all walks of life. The development of this legal tool benefited developing countries such as India. PIL has been utilised as a method to confront societal tragedies. It’s an institutional initiative towards the welfare of the needy class of the society. In Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[xii], SC ordered the release of bonded labourers. In a landmark judgement of Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India,[xiii] Supreme Court issued guidelines for rehabilitation and compensation for the rape of working women. In Sheela Barse v. Union of India,[xiv] another example of social action litigation can be found. In this case, the petition is filed by Bombay based social worker and journalist requesting the release of children under the age of 16 detained in prisons, reveal of complete information of children in prisons, information as to the presence of the Juvenile Courts, residences and schools, as well as a directive that District Judges should visit prisons to verify whether the children in custody are adequately cared for. The Supreme Court issued relevant instructions to the High Court to ensure that the District Judges follow the above-mentioned guidelines.


It would be suitable to conclude by quoting Cunningham statement, “Indian PIL might rather be a Phoenix: a whole new creative arising out of the ashes of the old order.” A PIL is a vital judicial instrument particularly for protecting the rights of individuals who are unable to approach the courts directly. They are one of the most popular types of litigation, particularly in environmental disputes. Public Interest Litigation has yielded astounding achievements which were unthinkable three decades ago. Degraded bonded labourers, tortured under trials and women prisoners, humiliated inmates of protective women’s home, blinded prisoners, exploited children, beggars, and many more have obtained relief through judicial intervention. The courts have attempted to simplify principles concerning PILs to not discourage the filing of PILs in the public interest and on behalf of the poor, disable or deprived classes of persons. However, there have been other cases when individuals have used PILs to serve their own private objectives. As a result, courts must continue to exercise extraordinary caution to ensure that PILs are not misused. We might conclude with an esteemed judge's belief that "judicial activism achieves its ultimate bonus when its orders wipe some tears from some eyes."

[i] Bran A. Garner, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 216, (West Group, 7th Edition, 1999). [ii] The Constitution of India, 1950, Part IV. [iii] The Constitution of India, 1950, Part III. [iv] Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, (AIR 1984 SC 802). [v] Unni krishnan v. State of A.P, (AIR 1993 SC 2178). [vi] People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, (AIR 1982 SC 1473). [vii] Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of U.P., (AIR 1985 SC 431). [viii] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art.21. [ix] D.C.Wadhwa v. State of Bihar, (AIR 1987 SC 579). [x] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 32. [xi] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 226. [xii] Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India (AIR 1984 SC 802). [xiii] Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India, (AIR 1995 SC 114). [xiv] Sheela Barse v. Union of India, (AIR 1986 SC 1773).

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