PIL stands for Public Interest Litigation which simply means litigation meant for the protection of the interest of the public at large. This is a power granted to the general public for the protection of their interest and rights against the injustice done on them. PIL is a result of judicial activism of the court and is used to protect the rights of the public at large and not at an individual level. PIL is not specifically mentioned in any legislature rather it is a practice and has its origin through case laws in India. One thing to note is that PIL can’t be filed against an individual and it also can’t be filed on behalf of an individual. To simplify, PIL can be filed only against the State and it must be filed on behalf of a large number of people. The motive behind PIL is to reach out to marginalized people and provide them justice. PIL in one sense dilutes the legal principle of ‘Locus standi’ because it allows a third person to file a petition though his/her rights were not infringed. This blog would make a greater emphasis on the abuse of PIL while celebrating the positive side of PIL.
Talking of the origin of PIL in India, PIL was introduced in the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar where Kapila Hingorani represented the trial criminal who was just put in jail for a very long period of time. In many cases, the time duration was even more than the time of punishment they could have been awarded for the commission of that crime. Though no rights of Kapila Hingorani were infringed but she represented the prisoners whose rights were infringed because they didn’t have enough resources and power to file the petition and fight against the injustice. This case was presided by Justice P.N. Bhagwati and consequently, he was known as the father of PIL.
The new phase of PIL was initiated by the case of S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India. This case was also presided by Justice P.N. Bhagwati. This judgement advanced the utility of PIL in Indian Jurisdiction and said that PIL is a weapon that can be used to protect ourselves when an action of the Government resulted in legal injury for the public at large. It was also held that anyone acting in a Bonafide manner can file a writ petition under Article 32 and Article 226 for enforcement of Fundamental Rights for the public at large. There are certain cases where PIL was used to bring certain reforms and changes in the legislative procedure. In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, a PIL was brought before the Hon’ble Supreme Court to restrain the respondents from discharging waste into River Ganga. This PIL was filed to save the river from being polluted and was therefore filed to protect the right and interests of the public at large. Coming to the next case, this PIL was filed by several NGOs and women empowerment groups for the enactment of certain rules and guidelines for sexual harassment at the workplace. Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan is considered to be one of the landmark PIL judgements and this judgement highlights the benefit of PIL. This case made several reforms towards the protection of women at workplace and the guidelines laid down, in this case, are followed till date.
The dark side of PIL
It is undisputed that PIL is a boon to common, marginalised people and exploited commoners. The primary goal of bringing a PIL is to make the courts more accessible to the general public, allowing them to seek redress. It’s an important tool for social change because it helps to keep the rule of law in place, which in turn helps to control and balance the weight of the law. For the most part, people file PILs to give the poor and underprivileged class of society a voice in the legal system.
This is a critical tool for individuals who have just been denied basic human rights, consumer protection, and environmental protection. However, there’s another side to the story as well which is that PIL is misused for personal benefit. Recently, many jurists and eminent legal personalities have called out for misuse of PIL. The major reasons for the misuse of PIL are that it is cost-efficient and time-efficient in comparison to conventional procedures. Another set of reason is that PIL is something that brings people to the limelight therefore many lawyers, activists and NGOs file petitions for publicity. Many a time PILs are filed for private interest and political interest which defies the basic soul of PIL.
This is not the first time a legal tool is used for a wholly different purpose from what it was meant to serve. One of the similar instances was Section 498A of the IPC; this section was meant to protect women from violence husband or relative of husband. This legal provision was highly misused and false cases were lodged at exponential rates against Husbands. The same was the case of PIL; recently many people have started filing PILs that are not aimed at the upliftment of discriminated public at large rather they have other ulterior motives. Former Chief Justice A.S. Anand has called out the judiciary for tackling against irrelevant PILs, he said “Care has to be taken to see that PIL essentially remains public interest litigation and is not allowed to degenerate into becoming political interest litigation or private inquisitiveness litigation”. A case filed before the court to vindicate some private complaints should be rejected at the outset if it is impertinent and dressed up as a public interest case. It’s important to remember that a writ petitioner seeking protection inside the public interest needs not merely have clean hands, as well as a good spirit, a pure intellect, as well as a moral aim when they approach the Court.
Supreme Court has certainly made few guidelines in respect of PIL which guides about the cases which will not be heard as a PIL Petition. The Supreme Court and the High Courts have ruled on hundreds of petitions for review. The age of judicial activism has begun as a result of these PILs. Many fundamental rights have taken on new dimensions, meanings, scopes, and purposes as a result of the Supreme Court exercising its jurisdiction under Article 32 in a creative manner, commonly known as Judicial Activism.
There are several instances when the concept of PIL was exploited, a few of them are mentioned below:
- P.V. Paul Raj v. The Chief Electoral Officer: A petition under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution was filed before the Madras High court. This writ petition was filed to direct the election commissioners to conduct Covid tests of all the candidates contesting the legislative assembly elections. The court determined that the petition was without merit and dismissed it. It also urged the petitioners to exercise better judgement before bringing similar lawsuits to the courts again in the future.
To avoid further petitioning for one year without requesting leave from the Bench, this court terminated the case with expenses and forbade the petitioners from filing further Public interest Litigation. It would be one year before the petitioner can file any public interest lawsuit in this Court without first getting the permission of the relevant Bench.
- Pratyush Prasanna v. State of NCT of Delhi: A PIL was filed that claimed that the Government of Delhi was misusing public money moreover the petition requested for inquiry into funds used by the Government of Delhi. The court dismissed the petition on several grounds such as the petitioner didn’t avail his rights under RTI Act 2005; also the court fined the petitioner INR 50,000.
- Anya Malhotra v. Union of India: This is the uncommon name to the Central Vista redevelopment case. The Supreme Court observed that the PIL filed, in this case, is not maintainable. The court referred to this PIL as a motivated petition and imposed a fine of INR 1,00,000. The Supreme Court observed that PIL was meant as opening doors for securing the constitutional rights of marginalized classes. Further, the court said that it was not meant to make courts authority to cross-check government work.
Conclusion and Suggestions
Public Interest Legislation is a boon for the marginalized community but it has the potential to become a curse. The reason for this transformation would be the wrongful use of PIL to satisfy their private wants. There need to be a certain set of rules through which if a petition passes then would be considered for hearing. This will reduce the workload of the Judiciary and disable false cases.
PIL has been a guiding principle for several social works and welfare of people but this needs to be protected from being exploited. PIL is more like a natural resource that would satisfy the need of the public at large at a time but its exploitation will lead to a lot of damage. The one thing that the court needs to tackle the misuse of PIL is that they must reject the case if it seems to be a misuse of PIL prima facie even before the case is presented before the bench.
Author(s) Name: Utkarsh Pandey (Chanakya National Law University, Patna)
 Hussainara Khatoon & Ors v. Home Secretary, State Of Bihar 1979, 1979 SCR (3) 532.
 S.P. Gupta v. President of India and Ors. 1981, AIR 1982 SC 149.
 M.C. Mehta v. UOI 1988, 1988 AIR 1115.
 Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan 1997, (1997) 6 SCC 241.
 Shinsy P.S, Abuse of Public Interest Litigation – A Major Threat on Judicial Process, <https://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l469-Public-Interest-Litigation.html>.
 S.P.V. Paul Raj v. The Chief Electoral Officer, W.P. (MD) No. 7078 of 2021 (Madras High Court).
 Pratyush Prasanna and Ors. v. State of NCT of Delhi, W.P. (C) No. 5117 of 2021 (Delhi High Court).
 Anya Malhotra v. Union of India, W.P. (C) No. 5150 of 2021 (Delhi High Court).