Scope of Public Interest Litigation in India and Locus Standi

Locus Standi means the legal capacity to sue or approach courts. Under both the inquisitorial and adversarial system, the parties approaching the courts must have been aggrieved or deprived of their rights. Thus, in any legal process, the existence of locus standi is necessary.

PIL is different from the usual method of litigation. Locus standi is mandatory in traditional litigation, but a genuine interest or legitimate concern about the issues of the public will act as a substitute for local standi in a PIL.

Therefore, Locus standi is the standing of a person in whom the right to legal action vests. Thus, according to the principle of locus standi, any aggrieved person can approach the courts for a remedy. Locus standi is relaxed and made flexible in a Public Interest Litigation to expand the scope of litigation by considering the rights and issues of the marginalized and underprivileged.

Constitutional provisions

A citizen has the right to approach the Supreme court under Article 32 for the enforcement of their fundamental rights mentioned under Part III of the Constitution. Article 32 is remarked as the heart and soul of the Constitution. The rights under part III would be meaningless if they cannot be enforced.

The Supreme court can declare a law ultra vires if it is inconsistent with the rights mentioned under part III. The Supreme court can issue orders or directions or writs such as habeas corpus, certiorari, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto to enforce the rights of the citizens.

Similar jurisdiction is also conferred to the High courts under Article 226 to issue writs or directions or orders for the enforcement of fundamental rights. A citizen can avail of Article 32 only if there is a violation of a fundamental right. However, Article 226 is available not only for the enforcement of fundamental rights but also for other purposes. Therefore, the power under Article 32 is more restricted than the powers under Article 226.

So, citizens can file a PIL before the Supreme Court under Article 32 or before the High Court under Article 226. The aggrieved party need not appear before the court to enforce the right under Article 32. The court has the power to suo motu take cognizance in any matter and proceed with it. Moreover, the courts also have the power to treat any case with private interest as a publicly interesting case.

Also, under Article 39A the states must ensure that the operation of the legal system upholds justice and fairness equally to all citizens and the establishment and working of services that provide free legal aid to economic and socially backward citizens. The state can also pass legislation to ensure this. Thus, the crux of Article 39A also mandates PIL, which also seeks justice equally for everyone.

Scope of Public Interest Litigation in India

Initially, only petitions relating to habeas corpus were recognized as the subject matter of PIL. Now the scope of PIL extends to many issues of public importance such as:

  • Child abuse and child labour
  • Cases of neglected children
  • Bonded labour cases
  • Atrocities against woman, rape cases, kidnapping and murder
  • Refusal to pay minimum wages to workmen
  • Persecution of the socially and economically backward sections of the society – especially children and women
  • Complaints against police
  • Cases relating to environmental protection

Drawbacks of PIL

  • Misusing PIL and filing trivial petitions to accomplish the selfish and personal motives of individuals. Courts have made it clear that it is not personal interest litigation but litigation for the benefit of the public.
  • Unreasonable delay in disposal of matters of the poor, needy, and economically backward defeats the purpose of PIL.
  • The courts may overlook the problem of competing rights. For example, if a court orders the closing of a polluting chemical factory, it will infringe on the rights of workers in the factory due to loss of livelihood.
  • While determining issues of socio-economic importance or environmental problems, there is a chance that courts may inadvertently commit judicial overreach through PILs.
  • With an expansion in the meaning of locus standi, many people file public interest litigation for various purposes, which leads to overburdening the courts with cases.

Critical analysis 

Public Interest Litigation is the result of judicial activism. The only objective behind public interest litigation is to make the judiciary more responsive to the needs of the section of society that usually cannot approach the courts to redress their grievances. The judiciary acts as a guard for the society through this change. The legislature usually deals with problems that are separated from the masses and not connected with the welfare of common people.

Public Interest Litigation has significantly contributed to the enforcement and protection of rights that were usually overlooked and prevented the misuse of justice. PIL is necessary for the Indian context, which is ridden with injustice. At its inception, PIL was used as a tool against persecution. Subsequently, there was a huge inflow of trivial cases, but it should be seen as progress because it is aimed at producing results at an affordable rate.

Although PIL has many benefits, the courts must be cautious to prevent private interest through PILs. Judiciary shouldn’t use public interest litigation to encroach the fields of executive and legislature. The challenge faced by courts is in finding a balance between accepting a legitimate public concern while rejecting the trivial ones. A way to ensure this is by setting up some economic disincentives and only hearing cases that are primarily barred by a disability.

Conclusion

Public Interest Litigation, otherwise known as Class Litigation or Social Action litigation, is different from the normal mode of litigation. The main objective of PIL is to deliver justice to those who wouldn’t normally be able to access it. The rule of locus standi has undergone radical changes to make it more flexible. Now, any socially spirited person can file a PIL representing the grievances or issues of a socially or economically backward community.With the evolution and developments of PIL, accountability, and attitude of the government towards the rights of weaker sections have seen drastic improvements. The relaxed rule of locus standi and the betterment of government accountability towards the weaker sections have made PIL one the most important and effective tool for social change and to validate the Rule of Law as mentioned under Article 14.

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