In India, the Taj Mahal, an eternal symbol of love, has survived for centuries despite the brutal force of nature. It was almost destroyed by pollution when this magnificent monument was built. A lawyer named M.C. Mehta filed a Public Interest Litigation seeking a court order to take action against pollution.
Indian law has established “absolute liability” through the Oleum Gas Leak Case.
A Public Interest Litigation, or PIL, is a form of litigation that protects or enforces public interests. In law, public interest refers to the interest of a particular class of the community which affects their legal rights and obligations. The interest may be monetary.
What is a PIL?
No Indian statute defines PIL. A PIL, however, has been interpreted and defined by the courts. According to the Honourable Supreme Court of India, in Janata Dal v. H.S.Chaudhary, (AIR 1993 SC 892), the expression ‘PIL’ refers to a legal action initiated by a court for enforcing public/general interest where the public, or a particular class of the public, has some interest (including a pecuniary interest) that affects their legal rights or liabilities.
In addition to being the most effective and common judicial tool for protecting the environment, PILs have many advantages, including speedy results, nominal court fees, relaxed procedural rules, as well as a wide range of investigative tools available to courts, such as special committees.
Who can file a PIL?
PILs can be filed either by individuals or organizations to protect or enforce their own rights (regarding government owed rights) or on behalf of disadvantaged or oppressed sections of society that cannot assert their rights independently.
PILs have been exempt from locus standi, allowing the Hon’ble Court to take into account grievances filed on behalf of those who are poor, illiterate, deprived or disabled and incapable of approaching the courts themselves.
Nonetheless, only a good faith party and a party who has a substantial interest in the proceeding will be eligible to file a PIL. In no event will a person be entertained if he or she approaches the court for personal gain, private profit, political or any other indirect motive.
Suo moto cognizance may also be taken by the Court.
Where can a PIL be filed?
PILs extend the scope of Writ Jurisdiction. Consequently, PILs can either be filed with the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution or with any High Court of India under Article 226.
In any case, even a simple letter or postcard addressed to the Chief Justice of India or a high court Chief Justice may suffice. In the case of Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun vs., the court could take cognizance of the letter and convert it to a Public Interest Litigation. Under Public Interest Litigation, the Hon’ble Court converted a letter raising the issue of unauthorised and illegal mining in Mussoorie Hills into a writ petition in 1989.
Laws governing PIL in India
Indian courts have developed various principles related to PILs over the years:
PILs can be filed by anyone on behalf of those who are disadvantaged but cannot approach the court themselves; locus standi has been relaxed. Therefore, locus standi has been relaxed in cases involving PILs in the interest of protecting and safeguarding disadvantaged individuals’ interests and rights.
A letter or a telegram can be treated as a PIL as in Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun vs. State of Uttar Pradesh (see here). The courts have relaxed the law on pleadings when dealing with PILs.
Court intervention – The courts have also highlighted that Article 14 & 21 of the Constitution of India and International Conventions on Human Rights guarantee a fair trial. It is therefore imperative that courts intervene when injustice is committed against a large group of people.
When the court finds that the constitutional rights of a disadvantaged category of people are altered, the Government cannot raise the question of maintainability.
Res Judicata- The principle of res judicata, or any other analogous principle, is dependent on the circumstances and facts of the case.
Special circumstances may require a court to appoint a Commission or other bodies for investigation. Courts may direct the management of public institutions when they take over by the Commission.
Constitutional and statutory validity petitions in the High Court – Such petitions should not be entertained as PILs.
In order to do complete justice, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has the discretionary power to pass decrees and orders under Article 142 of the Constitution of India. It is important to understand, however, that while the high court may pass orders to ensure that justice is done, they do not possess the same powers as those granted to the Hon’ble Supreme Court pursuant to Article 142 of the Constitution.
In order for PILs not to be misused, courts are extremely careful to ensure that they are not used in a way that would undermine their very purpose – to help the poor and the downtrodden. Several cases have pointed to this fact, including Kushum Lata v. Union of India [(2006) 6 SCC 180. It has been held, however, that even if a petitioner approaches a court for his own private interest as a result of his personal grievance, the court may continue to order inquiries into the subject of the litigation and the state of affairs in order to advance the public interest.
Environmental law courts have developed and evolved several concepts, including the Polluter Pays Principle, the Precautionary Principle, and the Public Trust Doctrine.
What are some essentials of drafting a PIL?
Drafting a PIL involves some essential steps:
An initial step in drafting a PIL is to gather as much relevant information as possible.
A compilation of all documents related to the case, including photographs if any, is required.
The petitioner must choose which court to file the PIL, either before the Hon’ble Supreme Court or the High Court of the State in which the PIL is to be filed.
PILs can be submitted either in the form of a Petition or a Letter or Postcard. When filing a PIL before the Supreme Court of India, the letter/postcard must be addressed to the Chief Justice of India. The letter/postcard must be addressed to the Chief Justice of the High Court where the PIL is being filed.
PIL Guidelines – When drafting a PIL, one must meet the Public Litigation Guidelines applicable to the court where the PIL is to be filed. Court websites usually provide access to the same.
Details to clearly stated– The following details must be clearly stated:
Petitioner’s name, postal address, email address, phone number, occupation, annual income and PAN number.
Proof of identity of the Petitioner must be annexed.
Facts of the case.
Nature of the injury.
Any personal interest that he/she/it may have.
Details of any litigation involving the petitioner which could have a legal nexus with the issue involved in the PIL.
The class of persons for whose benefit the PIL is being filed and how they are incapable of accessing the courts themselves.
In the event that any representations have been made to any authorities regarding the issue, the details of the same.
Any person/body/institution that may be affected by the PIL must be joined as a party.
The Petitioner must also state that he/she/they are able to pay costs, if any, that may be imposed by the court.
Appearance in court- The Petitioner may either appoint an advocate or choose to appear in person.
There are many reasons why PILs are important legal tools, not just for those who can’t access the courts themselves, but also for those whose rights are at risk. The most common type of litigation is environmental litigation. In order not to discourage PILs filed in public interest and on behalf of those who are poor, disabled or deprived, the courts have simplified the rules regarding PILs. There are several instances in which people have used PILs to further their private interests, however. Consequently, courts must remain extremely cautious to ensure that PILs are not abused.