PUBLIC INTEREST is a kind of litigation brought about by the Constitutional Courts like the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. Although, the main and only focus of such litigation is only “Public Interest” there are various areas where a PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION can be filed. These kind of cases were given birth to by way of a simple telegram to the Supreme Court by a member of the public in the last few decades. Prior to this there have been provisions in the CPC dealing with public interest. For example Section 91 dealt with public nuisance and Order 1, Rule 8 of the Code of Civil Procedure permitted one to act on behalf of all in the same interest. Though these provisions had been there in law for many years but their social impact was negligible. But what really is the present day PIL as we all understand it?
As per the report of the Council for Public Interest Law set up by Ford foundation of the USA (1976 at PP 6-7) PIL was defined as : “Public interest law is the name that has recently been given to efforts to provide legal representation to groups and interest, which were not represented previously. Such efforts have been undertaken in recognition that ordinary market place for legal services fail to provide services to significant segments of the population and to significant interests. Such groups and interests include the poor, the environmentalists, the consumer, the racial and ethnic minorities”.
The Supreme Court adopted an original approach and it was for the first time in free India that telegrams and post cards were treated as petitions.
By the mid-eighties, the Indian Courts had adopted a very activist approach and have started interfering in almost anything and everything. The thin line demarcating the executive and judicial boundaries have become even thinner. Probably this judicial intervention was required for the times we are in since the executive had virtually collapsed. The courts took on to themselves the functions of directing operation cleanups, of cleansing of the environment; of applying the balm on inmates of jails, etc.
It was finally a judge who had to unlock the chains of the prisoners fetters in Prem Shanker Shukla’s case; it was also a judge who had to stop torture in Sunil Batras’ and Sheela Barses’ cases. It was further a judge only who had to issue the warning against police excesses in D.K.Basus’ case. It was only because of the effect of PILs that today we can walk with freedom and breathe cleaner air in Delhi. Thanks to the M.C. Mehtas’ case which finally replaced the diesel engines with the CNGs.
People now feared that with such widespread judicial interference, the flood gates of litigation would be opened wide and the already over burdened courts would get further slowed down. To this seen the Apex Court of India itself answered in Prof. K.E.Scotts’ words that the “Idle and whimsical plaintiff, a dilettante who litigates for a lark, is a spectre which haunts legal literature, not the court room”.
The courts have a extremely challenging task ahead of them especially when systems in the country are on the verge of breaking down.