Judicial Activism – Meaning, Examples, Judicial Activism in India UPSC Notes

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

Judicial Activism refers to a judicial approach where judges interpret the law broadly, and sometimes go beyond the traditional role of interpreting the law to shape social, economic, or political policies. In other words, it is a judicial philosophy where judges use their powers to advance specific values or objectives, rather than simply applying the law to the facts of a case. Judicial activism can take many forms, such as overturning laws or policies deemed unconstitutional, interpreting laws in a way that expands individual rights, or issuing rulings that mandate specific actions by government or private entities.

The term “Judicial Activism” denotes the judiciary’s proactive involvement in defending citizens’ rights. Judicial Activism in India means that the Supreme Court and the High Courts have the power to rule those laws that contradict or are incompatible with one or more constitutional provisions that are unconstitutional and invalid. The inferior courts lack access to this function. The lower courts lack the authority to determine the legality of laws and conduct judicial reviews.

What is Judicial Activism?

Judicial activism means the proactive role played by the judiciary in the protection of the rights of citizens and promoting justice in society. A judicial method known as judicial activism allows judges to interpret the law in a way that deviates from the text of the legislation or that enables them to develop new legal norms, principles, or standards. This strategy frequently involves using judicial review to invalidate laws or acts by the government that are judged to be against the Constitution or to enlarge individual rights beyond those previously recognized by the law.

Judicial Activism UPSC Notes

Judicial activism is a practical tool for doing this when the administration and legislature fail to uphold constitutional values and protect the rights of people. It also disproves the notion that the judiciary is only a spectator in these situations.

  • The practice of Judicial Activism was created and developed in the USA, and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. stamped the term in 1947.
  • In India, the basis of Judicial Activism was brought about by Justice P.N Bhagwati, Justice O.Chinnappa Reddy, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, and Justice D.A Desai.

Judicial Activism in India

Judicial Activism in India has played an important role in keeping democracy alive. Judicial activism in India refers to the approach taken by the Indian judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, in interpreting and enforcing the law.

It means that the court is actively involved in interpreting the Constitution broadly to protect individual rights and promote social justice. Here are some of the key reasons why judicial activism is important in India:

Protecting Individual Rights

  • The Constitution of India guarantees several fundamental rights to citizens, such as the right to equality, the right to speech, and the right to a fair trial.
  • Judicial Activism has been instrumental in protecting these rights, by striking down laws and government actions that are deemed unconstitutional and expanding the scope of individual rights beyond what was previously recognized by law.

Promoting Social Justice

  • The Supreme Court of India has been proactive in promoting social justice, particularly through the use of public interest litigation (PIL).
  • It allows individuals or groups to bring cases before the court on behalf of others who are unable to do so themselves.

Ensuring Government Accountability

  • Judicial Activism has helped to ensure that the government is accountable to the people.
  • By striking down laws and government actions that are deemed unconstitutional or that infringe on individual rights, the judiciary serves as a check on the power of the legislative and executive branches of government.

Strengthening Democracy

  • Judicial Activism has played a key role in strengthening the democracy of India.
  • By protecting individual rights and promoting social justice, the judiciary helps to ensure that the government represents the interests of all citizens, not just those in positions of power.

Role of the Judiciary in the context of Judicial Activism in India

The judiciary plays a crucial role in Judicial Activism in India. The Constitution of India grants the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, the power of Judicial Review, which allows it to strike down laws and government actions that are deemed unconstitutional. The role of the judiciary in judicial activism in India is to protect individual rights, promote social justice, ensure government accountability, and uphold the rule of law.

The Indian courts have shown Judicial Activism by making decisions about Judicial Review too soon. It’s important to balance the different parts of the government to maintain the principle of separation of powers, and checks, and balances properly. Judicial Activism has helped enforce fundamental rights in India.

Judicial Activism Importance in Indian Democracy

Judicial activism in India refers to the proactive approach taken by the judiciary in protecting the rights of citizens and ensuring that the government follows the constitution. Judicial Activism holds a high place in Indian democracy, which can be concluded from the fact that:

  • Judicial Activism helps uphold people’s faith in the Constitution and judicial organs;
  • It helps in enhancing administrative efficiency and helps good governance;
  • It helps in plugging active political lacunae;
  • It also allows the participation of the judiciary in the advancement of the country and in upholding democracy;
  • Judicial Activism helps in protecting or expanding individual rights.
  • Hussainara Khatoon (I) v. State of Bihar, Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra, Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, etc., are examples of the role of the Judiciary in the context of Judicial Activism.

Judicial Activism Examples

Judicial Activism, in simple words, means when judges interrupt their personal feelings into a conviction or sentence instead of upholding the existing laws. Following are some examples of landmark judgments that demonstrate the role of judicial activism in shaping the legal system of India and protecting the rights of its citizens.

  • 1967: In I.C. Golaknath & Ors vs State of Punjab & Anrs case, the Supreme Court announced that Fundamental Rights promoted in Part 3 are resistant and cannot be amended by the legislative assembly.
  • 1973: In the famous Kesavananda Bharati case, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution has a basic structure that cannot be altered even by Parliament. This judgment limited the power of the legislature and strengthened the concept of judicial review.
  • 1979: In Hussainara Khatoon (I) vs State of Bihar case, newspaper reports revealed that undertrial prisoners were subjected to inhumane and brutal conditions. In accordance with the right to a speedy trial as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court accepted the matter and directed the state authorities to offer free legal aid to undertrial prisoners, to assist them in obtaining justice, bail, or final release.
  • 1983: In the Sheela Barse vs State of Maharashtra case, A journalist wrote a letter to the Supreme Court about the custodial violence experienced by women prisoners in jail. The Supreme Court treated the letter as a writ petition and acknowledged the matter. It then issued appropriate guidelines to the concerned authorities.
  • 1985: In the MC Mehta vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of several industries in Delhi to control pollution levels. This landmark judgment established the ‘Polluter Pays’ concept and set a precedent for environmental protection.
  • 1993: In the case of S. R. Bommai vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court upheld the principle of federalism and ruled that the dismissal of state governments by the central government must be for valid reasons and not for political reasons.
  • 2002: In the Unnikrishnan vs. State of Andhra Pradesh case, the Supreme Court declared that every child in India has the fundamental right to education. It directed the government to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged 6-14 years.

Methods of Judicial Activism

Judicial activism refers to the proactive role of the judiciary in interpreting and shaping the law to promote justice and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. Here are some common methods of judicial activism:

Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

  • This is a type of litigation that allows citizens to approach the courts to seek redressal for public grievances.
  • Public Interest Litigation is a method of judicial activism that has been widely used in India to address issues of public concern such as corruption, pollution, and human rights violations.

Interpretation of the Constitution

The interpretation of the Constitution is a crucial method of judicial activism in India as it allows the courts to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and promote social justice.

Striking Down Unconstitutional Laws

  • The Constitution of India provides for the separation of powers between the legislature, executive, and judiciary.
  • If the legislature enacts a law that violates the Constitution, the courts have the power to strike down the law.
  • This is another method of judicial activism in India that is used to protect the fundamental rights of citizens.

Expanding the Scope of Existing Laws

The courts in India have the power to interpret the law in a manner that goes beyond its original intent to address new and unforeseen situations.

Judicial Review

  • The Constitution of India provides the power of judicial review, which allows the courts to review the actions of the government and other public bodies to ensure that they are consistent with the Constitution and the law.
  • This is an important method of judicial activism in India that has been used to ensure accountability and transparency in governance.

Pros and Cons of Judicial Activism

It is important to note that there are differing opinions on the pros and cons of Judicial Activism in India, and the table below provides a broad overview of some of the arguments made for and against Judicial Activism.

Pros of Judicial Activism Cons of Judicial Activism
Protection of Fundamental Rights: Judicial activism in India has played a crucial role in protecting the fundamental rights of citizens, particularly the marginalized sections of society Undermining Democracy: Some critics argue that judicial activism in India undermines democracy as unelected judges are making policy decisions that should be made by elected representatives
Holding the Government Accountable: Judicial activism has been used in India to hold the government accountable and to ensure that public institutions are transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs Interfering with the Separation of Powers: Some critics argue that judicial activism in India interferes with the separation of powers by encroaching on the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government
Promoting Access to Justice: Judicial activism has been used in India to promote access to justice for marginalized communities who may not have the resources to seek legal recourse Lack of Accountability: Critics argue that judges in India are not accountable to the public and are often guided by their own personal beliefs and ideologies
It Protects the fundamental rights of citizens Interference in the functioning of other branches of government
It Promotes social justice and accountability Overburdening the judiciary and delays in justice delivery
Enhances transparency and checks abuse of power Creation of legal uncertainties and confusion
Ensures the upholding of constitutional values Lack of democratic accountability
Provides a forum for the marginalized to seek justice Potential for judicial overreach and overstepping of constitutional limits

Criticism of Judicial Activism

Criticism of judicial activism refers to the arguments made against the concept of Judicial Activism. It is a legal approach in which judges interpret the law in a way that promotes social justice and protects individual rights, often expanding the scope of their own authority. Criticism of Judicial Activism in India includes the following points:

  • Violation of Separation of Powers: Judicial Activism violates the principle of separation of powers as it may result in the judiciary encroaching upon the functions of the executive and legislative branches of the government. The judiciary is not elected and should not take decisions that should be left to elected representatives.
  • Judicial Overreach: It may result in judicial overreach, where the courts take decisions that are beyond their competence or legal expertise.
  • Delayed Justice: Judicial activism may lead to delays in the administration of justice, as the courts may take time to deliberate and reach decisions. This can result in justice being denied to those who are in urgent need of it.
  • Lack of Accountability: It reduces the accountability of the judiciary as there is no oversight mechanism to check the decisions of the judiciary.

Judicial Review and Judicial Activism

Judicial review and Judicial Activism are two related concepts in the field of law and governance. While they both refer to the role of courts in interpreting and applying the law, they have different implications and outcomes.

Judicial Review: If legislation, policy, or action taken by the government or another public authority is deemed to be unlawful, the judiciary has the authority to evaluate it and invalidate it. This power is based on the doctrine of separation of powers, which holds that each branch of government must act within its own constitutional limits.

Judicial Activism: It refers to the role of the judiciary in interpreting and enforcing the law in a way that promotes social justice and protects fundamental rights. Judicial activism involves judges taking an active role in the legal and policy-making process, rather than just interpreting and applying existing laws.

Judicial Restraint and Judicial Overreach

The function of the court in interpreting and applying the law is described by the ideas of judicial restraint and judicial excess. The difference between judicial restraint and judicial overreach is that the former entails judges abdicating their power and interfering in areas that should be handled by the legislative and executive branches of government.

  • Judicial Restraint: It is the principle that judges should interpret the law in a way that is deferential to the decisions of the other branches of government.
  • Judicial Overreach: It occurs when judges exceed their authority and interfere in matters that should be left to the other branches of government.

These are some occasions where judicial activism turned into judicial overreach:

  • Christian Medical College, Vellore & Others v. Union of India: The Supreme Court declared that the NEET is the only exam that may be used to admit undergraduate students to medical programs, prohibiting the states from holding their own entrance examinations for such programs.
  • Swaraj Abhiyan (I) v. Union of India: The SC ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to revise and modify the Drought Mitigation Manual. The state was instructed to establish an NDMF in 3 months by the highest court as well.

Judicial Activism UPSC

Judicial Activism is an important topic that needs to be understood by the candidates appearing for the UPSC Exam. Indian Polity is a favorite subject of the Union Public Service Commission, and every year, several questions are asked about the subject both in Prelims and Mains. In GS Paper 2 of the UPSC Mains, a critical analysis of Judicial Activism can be asked in detail.

Solving UPSC Question papers would help students to understand the exam pattern better and give an idea about the types of questions that could be asked in the IAS Exam.

Question 1: Where did the concept of judicial activism originate? (1) India, (2) USA, (3) Germany, (4) Britain

Answer: USA

Question 2: Which of the following statements is correct about judicial activism? (1) It is the process of lawmaking by judges, (2) It is the practice in the judiciary of protecting individual rights, (3) Judges depart from strict adherence to judicial precedents, (4) All of the above

Answer: All of the above

Question 3: Who coined the term judicial activism? (1) Montesquieu, (2) Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, (3) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., (4) None of the above

Answer: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

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