top of page

Public Interest Litigation

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Written by: Samyuktha Pentyala


Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a litigation in a court of law to safeguard "public interest" issues such as pollution, terrorism, road safety, and construction hazard. Not by the aggrieved party, but by the court or any other private party itself, it is a case brought in a court of law. It is not necessary for a person who is the victim of a violation of his or her right to directly notify the court in order to exercise the jurisdiction of the court. Judicial advocacy offers this power. Such cases which arise if the victim does not have the means to initiate litigation or his right to go to court has been abolished or abused.

In the late 1970s, in India, Public Interest Litigation (PIL) began. Inmate rights, bonded workers, other ignored persons and concerns were considered in the judicial forum for the first time. Using their inherent powers under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, a few Supreme Court and High Court magistrates have made it easier to access justice. Any individual acting in the public interest was allowed, on behalf of others who were unable to do so on their own or on matters of significant public concern, to submit a petition. PIL is intended to combat serious infringements of rights and to combat the inherent limits of legal action. PIL has given the short-term redress needed or has concentrated attention on topics that have never been addressed in the national forum before. Litigation of public interests is an essential asset of the modern Indian legal system. One of the latest changes in the age-old judiciary has been this. A very serious upgrade to the system that acknowledged the efforts of a public-spirited individual and sought to protect the public interest through the involvement of the court in the country's administrative functions and various other aspects of the country was the PIL system.

PILs have been a strong instrument for implementing the executive and the legislature's legal obligations. The primary aim behind PILs is to ensure fairness for all and promote people's welfare. In general, it is used to protect the interests of the community and not the individual interests for which Fundamental Rights have been given. India's Supreme Court and the High Courts are entitled to issue PILs. The principle of PILs derives from the authority of judicial review. The definition of PILs has diluted the locus standi principle, which means that only the person/party whose rights have been violated can file petitions. It has been used most ideally and often to contest public authorities' actions by way of judicial review, to review the lawfulness of a decision or action or the failure of the public body to act. In India's politics, PILs have played a significant role. They were responsible for some of India's landmark decisions, such as banning the instant triple talaq, opening women's doors to the Sabarimala and Haji Ali shrines, legalizing intimate homosexual relationships, legalizing passive euthanasia, etc.

Legal History of PIL in India

The Indian PIL is the improved U.S.A. PIL version. Kapila Hingorani filed a petition in 1979 and secured the release in the popular 'Hussainara Khatoon'[1] case of nearly 40,000 undertrials from Patna's jails. Hingorani was an advocate. The SC filed this case before a bench headed by Justice P N Bhagwati. As a consequence of this good scenario, Hingorani is called the 'Mother of PILs'. In order to ensure that the definition of PILs was clearly enunciated, Justice Bhagwati did a lot. He did not insist on compliance with procedural technicalities and even regarded ordinary letters as written petitions from public-minded individuals. Among the first judges in the nation to admit PILs were Justice Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer.

Importance of PIL

PIL acts as an integral method of social change. It works for any segment of society's well-being. The innovation of this legitimate instrument has proven beneficial for developing countries like India. PIL has been used as a tool to tackle the atrocities prevailing in society. It is an institutional endeavour for the wellbeing of the needy class of society. SC ordered bonded laborers to be freed in Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[2]. In the case of Murli S. Dogra v. Union of India, the court banned smoking in public locations. In the landmark judgment of the Delhi Domestic Working Women's Forum v. Union of India[3] for the rape on working women. The Supreme Court declared in Citizen for Democracy v. State of Assam[4] that a prisoner cannot be forced to wear handcuffs or other fetters while in custody, or when being transported or transiting from one jail to another, or from the court to the jail or back. In the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, It was decided that any member of the public or a social action group acting in good faith can seek remedy from the High Courts or the Supreme Court for infringement of legal or constitutional rights of people who are unable to approach the Court owing to social, economic, or other barriers.[5]

The remedial nature of PIL departs from the traditional specifications of locus standi. In Part III of the Constitution, the principles enshrined in Part IV of the Constitution of India were indirectly added. By moving the desires of Part IV into Part III of the Constitution, the Indian Judiciary has transformed the structured nature of Indian legislation into a dynamic welfare one. Representative status can be seen as a new expansion to the well-accepted standing exception that requires a third party to file a habeas corpus petition on the grounds that the injured party is not able to approach the court itself. And in this sense, the Indian meaning of PIL is much broader, in comparison to the American definition. An improved class action form is PIL. The principle of citizenship thus marks a major expansion of the rule of the court, from the protector of human rights to the guardian of the rule of law anywhere official lawlessness is at risk.

The courts aim to safeguard human rights through the PIL process by establishing a new human rights system by extending the scope of the fundamental right to freedom, life, and personal liberty. Human rights such as the right to a timely trial, free legal assistance, dignity, means of subsistence, education, housing, medical care, a clean environment, the right to torture, sexual assault, solitary incarceration, slavery and servitude, violence, and others emerge during this phase. Such new reconceptualized rights offer legal resources to enable the courts by PIL for their compliance and by creating new kinds of relief under the written jurisdiction of the court. For instance, to the victims of governmental lawlessness, the court may award temporary compensation. This is in marked contrast to the Anglo-Saxon adjudication process, which limits interim remedy to maintaining the status quo pending a final verdict. The granting of compensation in a PIL case does not preclude the injured party from pursuing a civil claim for damages. The court will design any relief for the victims in PIL cases. It also aims to secure access to justice through democratization. By relaxing the conventional rule of locus standi, this is achieved. On behalf of the marginalized groups, any public-spirited individual or social justice organization may approach the court. Even writing a letter or sending a telegram will attract the attention of the courts. Epistolary authority has been labelled this. Courts devise new fact-finding methods. The court has appointed its own socio-legal commissions of inquiry in most of the cases or has deputed its own investigating officer. It has also taken advantage of the National Human Rights Commission or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or experts to prosecute abuses of human rights. This could be called litigation for investigation.

Misuse of PIL

Many people have begun to use PIL as a tool to file fake cases in order to harass people. Since filing a PIL is less costly than private litigation, this has become simple. People have a tendency to misrepresent their private interests as public interests due to the ease with which they can get a locus standi. People have begun to abuse the PIL to settle personal grudges and satisfy political or commercial agendas. According to the court, PIL should be treated as a "public interest lawsuit" rather than a "private interest litigation." Tushar Mehta, the Solicitor General, termed PILs "professional PIL shops" and asked for their repeal. He claimed that in order to respond to frivolously filed PILs, government personnel waste their time, which can be detrimental to the country. He also referred to them as "self-employment producing petitions" on which the court should not waste time at a later date.

Lawyers, and more recently, law students, have attempted to use PIL to gain attention in the past. The court has even referred to these cases as "publicity interest litigation" on several occasions. The court stated that these litigations rather than achieving the goal of PILs, harm the public welfare.

Suggestions to reduce the misuse of PIL

Former Attorney General Soli Sorabji believes that three essential guidelines should be followed to regulate the filing of public interest lawsuits.[6] They are as follows: Not hearing to uncertain and questionable PILs and rejecting them right away. It is also advised that significant costs be imposed on them as a deterrence in the future. Petitions that have been filed for a long time and are directed against a socioeconomic regulation or a major project should be dismissed outright using the general norms of litigation.To achieve trust, PIL practitioners should be required to provide assurance to the court in the form of an undertaking that they will recover damages if the PIL is dismissed.


Public Interest Litigation serves as an effective tool for social change. It works for the well-being of every segment of society. It's everybody's sword that's used only to get justice. For developing countries such as India, the innovation of this legitimate instrument has proven beneficial. PIL has been used to fight the atrocities prevalent in society as a tactic. It is an institutional effort for the welfare of society's needy class. PIL represents the first attempt to break away from legal hegemony perpetuated for centuries by a developing common law nation. It disputes the presumption that the more western the law, the better such law created in developing states, including India, would work for economic and social growth, was the development of underdeveloped persons. PIL provides a new jurisprudence for the state's responsibility for constitutional and legal abuses that adversely impact the rights of the community's weaker elements. Once articulated by Justice Krishna Iyer, we may end with hope; when his orders wipe some tears from some eyes, judicial activism gets its highest bonus.

[1] Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, 1979 AIR 1369

[2] Bandhu Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, (1997) 10 SCC 549

[3] Delhi Domestic Working Women's Forum v. Union of India, (1995) 1 SCC 14

[4]Citizen for Democracy v. State of Assam

[5] S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, 1982 AIR 149

[6] Monika Sangeeta Ahuja, PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION IN INDIA; A SOCIO-LEGAL STUDY, PhD Thesis, University of London

375 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page