Public Interest Litigation in India: PIL Meaning, Features, Importance of Public Interest Litigation | UPSC Notes

By Shubhra Anand Jain|Updated : November 16th, 2022

PIL, or Public Interest Litigation, is the tool that is available in the Indian law system that helps to advance human equality and rights. A legal action brought in a court of law to enforce a public interest in which the general public or a class of the community has some interest and which could have an impact on their legal rights or obligations is referred to as public interest litigation (PIL)

All matters related to the public interest and are affected for any reason can be filed in court with the help of Public Interest Litigation. Public Interest Litigation, or PIL, is important in Indian politics and law. If you would like to learn more about this topic, you can download the PDF version of this document and start your preparation for the upcoming UPSC Civil Services Examination.

Table of Content

What is PIL?

Public Interest Litigation first originated in the United States of America in the 1960s. In the USA, it was designed to provide privileges to underrepresented groups and provide them with legal representation.

  • In India, Public Interest Litigation was introduced by Justice VR Krishnan Iyer and Justice PN Bhagwati in the 1980s.
  • PIL is also called SAL (Social Action Litigation), SIL (Social Interest Litigation), and CAL (Class Action Litigation).

Public Interest Litigation Notes PDF

Public Interest Litigation In India is a form of Judicial activism where the judiciary is used to promote human rights and equality. 

Public Interest Litigation in India

Anyone can file the PIL in the Supreme Court of India under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, the High Courts of India under Act 226 of the Indian Constitution, and the District Court under Act 133 of the Indian Constitution.

  • Before filing the PIL, it should be considered that it fulfils the basic requirements of a letter by the aggrieved person. The aggrieved person should be a public-spirited individual or someone who, on behalf of a community, cannot approach the court for addressing.
  • Public interest litigation can be easily found against the municipal authorities and governments ruling the state or centre. However, it cannot be filed against any private party.

The Supreme Court of India formed a certain set of guidelines in 2003 that are words to be considered as the petitions or letters that follow under the categories mentioned below will be entertained as Public Interest Litigation. -

  • Bonded labour matters
  • Neglected children
  • Non-payment of minimum wages to workers
  • The exploitation of casual workers and complaints of violations of labour laws
  • Petitions against the police for refusing to register a case
  • Harassment by the police or death in police custody
  • Petitions complaining of harassment of villagers by other co-villagers or by the police
  • Petitions from riot victims
  • family pension

There are also specific lists of cases that cannot be considered for filing Public Interest Litigation. These are:

  • Landlords and tenants' matters
  • Complaints against the central or state government departments and local bodies
  • Regarding student admission to medical or other educational institutions
  • Petitions for early hearing of cases pending in the High Courts and sub-courts

History of Public Interest Litigation India

The PIL in India began with the first case, which was Hussainara Khatoon vs the State of Bihar in 1979, where almost 40000 undertrials were released from Patna Jail. The SC bench headed by Justice P N Bhagwati supported that prisoners have access to free legal aid and speedy hearing. 

Due to the success of this Public Interest Litigation in India, the lawyer Hingorani is called the ‘Mother of PILs’. Although Hingorani had no locus standi in the case, the court permitted her to pursue the case as a PIL. 

Other cases related to PIL in Administrative Law and other matters are:

  • People’s Union for Democratic Rights vs Union of India
  • DC Wadhwa vs State of Bihar (1986)
  • MC.Mehta vs Union of India(1988) to prevent water pollution in Ganga. 
  • Shreya Singhal vs Union of India related to freedom of speech. 

Features of PIL

The following are the features of Public Interest Litigation:

  • Public Interest Litigation is a government tool that helps bring justice to that mass of society in the low visibility area of humanity.
  • Public Interest Litigation is an entirely different concept from the ordinary litigation process, where two parties fight against each other by filing complaints opposing and resisting each other for relief.
  • The process of filing Public Interest Litigation does not work for any individual person, but it promotes and vindicates the public interest.
  • The demand of Public Interest Litigation is that whichever section of society is left behind that is economically disadvantaged or ignored at the last level should not go unaddressed or unnoticed.
  • In Public Interest Litigation, the role played by the courts is more assertive than in any other traditional legal action.
  • There is no determination on the adjudication of single-person rights in Public Interest Litigation, as there is in the traditional dispute resolution mechanism.

Guidelines for Public Interest Litigation in India

With the advent of Public Interest Litigation in the knowledge of the common people, it has become an increasingly important field in the administration of law. PIL in Administrative Law is a very sensitive matter, and it should not be spoofed with private or political interest litigation.

Therefore, to avoid such things, the Supreme Court of India has observed that "Public Interest Litigation" is not a pill for all the wrongs. It was meant to protect the basic human rights of the weak and disadvantaged. It was a procedure that was innovated where a public-spirited person files a petition in effect on behalf of such persons who, on account of poverty, helplessness, or economic and social disabilities, could not approach the court for relief. So, there is a need to re-emphasise the parameters within which PIL can be resorted to by a petitioner and entertained by the court if you don't mind.

The Supreme Court of India has laid down specific guidelines to be followed for filing and avoiding the misuse of PIL.

  1. The code should encourage bonafide PIL and discourage the PIL fields for extraneous considerations.
  2. Instead of each judge developing their procedure for dealing with PILs, it would be ideal for each High Court to establish rules to encourage genuine PIL filing and remove PILs filed with oblique motives.
  3. The concerned code should, first of all, verify the credentials of the petitioner before proceeding with the filed Public Interest Litigation.
  4. Before entertaining and proceeding with the hearing for PIL, the court should be satisfied with the correctness of the petition's content.
  5. Also, the code should be completely satisfied that the public interest is involved in the field petition of PIL.

Strengths and Weaknesses of PIL

PIL is a vital instrument that helps to upgrade the marginalised section of society by providing them with legal assistance. There are particular strengths and weaknesses of PIL.

Strength and Importance of PIL In India

  • The public interest litigation allows the common people access to India's higher and supreme courts.
  • PIL helps to maintain the rule of law and fosters the balance between the law and Justice.
  • The prime and important function of public interest litigation is to provide access to justice to every marginalised section of society.
  • PIL monitors important institutions like protective homes, mental asylums, and prisons.
  • With the introduction of PIL, the public have greater access to the Judicial review of administrative actions.

Criticism Of PIL

  • There are chances of arousal of the competing rights issues due to PIL actions. For instance, in the case of a court ordering the closure of the poultry industry, the interest of the workers and families might not be considered.
  • This could lead to frivolous PIL being filed by the parties having a vested interest in overburdened courts. This is because PILs are mostly used for politmainlynd personal benefits in today's world.
  • Through the PIL overheating by the Judiciary can be brought to light about social-economic or environmental issues.
  • For many years, PIL has been pending regarding exploited and backward groups. Because of this, it is also possible that many pending judgments may be only of academic importance due to the excessive delays in the disposal of public interest litigation cases.

Importance of PIL

The Importance of Public Interest Litigation in the judicial system can be understood as the road to providing justice for the marginalised society and those who have not been allowed to access their rights.

  • For the Judiciary to find a balance, it is important to allow the real PIL while discouraging the frivolous once that can be accomplished by restricting the PILs to the situation where access to justice has been hampered.
  • Additionally, it may be worthwhile to consider offering financial incentives for legitimate pillow suits such as Pro bono litigation, support for PIL civil society, legal assistance, and amicus curiae briefs.

PIL UPSC

Public Interest Litigation, or PIL, is an important concept in Indian Polity and is always a contemporary issue in democratic countries like India. This feature makes it important to prepare deeply for the IAS exam. This topic can ask at least 2 to 3 questions in the UPSC Prelims exam

You can get the Indian Polity books to prepare UPSC Prelims and Mains Exams. Also, the NCERT books are of great relevance in such competitive papers. 

>>Public Interest Litigation Notes PDF

Public Interest Litigation UPSC Mains Question

Remember to download the UPSC question papers to practice what you learned.

Question-1. Explain the Public Interest Litigation. Who can file it, and on what basis can the court of law reject it? [Question Asked in 2000]

Question-2. Consider the following statements [Question Asked in 2008]

  1. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was the chief justice of India
  2. Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer is considered one of the progenitors of Public Interest Litigation in the Indian judicial system.

Which of the above statements is correct?

  1. 1 only
  2. 2 only
  3. Both are correct
  4. None of the above

Correct Answer:- B)2 Only

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FAQs on Public Interest Litigation in India

  • Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a tool that is available in the Indian law system that helps to advance human equality and rights. PIL in India is a legal action brought to the court to enforce public interest. 

  • PIL can be filed against any officer of the law, municipal authorities, or private parties.

  • PIL can be considered as the extended version of writ jurisdictions. Writs have constitutional backing, whereas Public Interest Litigation is not mentioned in the Indian Constitution. 

  • The supreme court or the high court can out rightly reject the PIL if it is found flawed or intended to mean for any individual person.

  • PIL can be helpful for a particular section of society, which is generally neglected, remains unnoticed, and is either deprived of resources or discriminated against.

  • To download the Public Interest Litigation Notes PDF, click here. The Note on PIL contains all the details about Public Interest Litigation In India, the concept, features, importance and more

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