Social change is the necessity of any society. In India it is done through Public Interest Litigation. Such is the disillusionment with the state formal legal system that it is no longer demanded by law to do justice, if justice perchance is done, we congratulate ourselves for being fortunate. In these circumstances one of the best things that have happened in the country in recent years is the process of social reform through Public Interest Litigation.
The British rule bequeathed to India a colonial legal heritage. The Anglo-Saxon model of adjudication insisted upon observance of procedural technicalities such as locus standing and adherence to adversarial system of litigation. The result was that the courts were accessible only to the rich and the influential people for a long time. The marginalized and disadvantaged groups continued to be exploited and denied basic human rights.
Necessity of informal justice was felt, whether as an alternative to state law or as to its agent to find its identity in opposition of Anglo-Saxon law prescribing legal formalism and due to the failure of formal legal system to deliver justice that forced informal justice to take on a separate identity from state law.
The emergency period (1975-1977) witnessed colonial nature of the Indian legal system. During emergency state repression and governmental lawlessness was widespread. Thousands of innocent people including political opponents were sent to jails and there was complete deprivation of civil and political rights. The post emergency period provided an occasion for the judges of the Supreme Court to openly disregard the impediments of Anglo-Saxon procedure in providing access to justice to the poor. Notably two justices of the Supreme Court, Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer and P. N. Bhagwati recognized the possibility of providing access to justice to the poor and the exploited people by relaxing the rules of standing. In the post-emergency period when the political situations changed, investigative journalism also began to expose gory scenes of governmental lawlessness, repression, custodial violence, drawing attention of lawyers, judges, and social activists. PIL emerged as a result of an informal nexus of pro-active judges, media persons and social activists. This trend shows stark difference between the traditional justice delivery system and the modern informal justice system where the judiciary is performing administrative judicial role. PIL is necessary rejection of laissez faire notions of traditional jurisprudence.
Till 1960s and seventies, the concept of litigation in India was still in its rudimentary form and was seen as a private pursuit for the vindication of private vested interests. Litigation in those days consisted mainly of some action initiated and continued by certain individuals, usually, addressing their own grievances/problems. Thus, the initiation and continuance of litigation was the prerogative of the injured person or the aggrieved party. Even this was greatly limited by the resources available with those individuals. There were very little organized efforts or attempts to take up wider issues that affected classes of consumers or the general public at large.
However, the scenario changed during Eighties with the Supreme Court of India led the concept of public interest litigation (PIL). The Supreme Court of India gave all individuals in the country and the newly formed consumer groups or social action groups, an easier access to the law and introduced in their work a broad public interest perspective.
In Indian law, public interest litigation means litigation for the protection of the public interest. It is litigation introduced in a court of law, not by the aggrieved party but by the court itself or by any other private party. It is not necessary, for the exercise of the court's jurisdiction, that the person who is the victim of the violation of his or her right should personally approach the court. Public interest litigation is the power given to the public by courts through judicial activism. However, the person filing the petition must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the petition is being filed for a public interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body.
Such cases may occur when the victim does not have the necessary resources to commence litigation or his freedom to move court has been suppressed or encroached upon. The court can itself take cognizance of the matter and preceded cases can commence on the petition of any public-spirited individual.
The first reported case of PIL focused on the inhuman conditions of prisoners and under trial prisoners. In Hussainara Khatoon State of Bihar, AIR 1979 SC 1360, the PIL was filed by an advocate on the basis of the news item published in a famous daily newspaper, highlighting the plight of thousands of under-trial prisoners languishing in various jails in Bihar. These proceeding led to the release of more than 40, 000 under-trial prisoners. Right to speedy justice emerged as a basic fundamental right which had been denied to these prisoners. The same set pattern was adopted in subsequent cases.
In 1981 the case of Anil Yadav - State of Bihar, AIR 1982 SC 1008, exposed the brutalities of the Police. News paper report revealed that about 33 suspected criminals were blinded by the police in Bihar by putting the acid into their eyes. Through interim orders S. C. directed the State government to bring the blinded men to Delhi for medical treatment. It also ordered speedy prosecution of the guilty policemen. The court also read right to free legal aid as a fundamental right of every accused.
Another great example was set up by the Bombay High Court on 31 August 2006 directing the broadcasters to give an undertaking that they will abide by the Cable Television Network Act 1995 as well as the court's orders by next day, in view of larger public interest.
Indeed PIL is a boon to the society but at the same time it is important to track down its pitfalls & drawbacks and accordingly changes must be made to its provisions from time to time so that no one can misuse it because overuse and abuse of PIL can only make it stale and ineffective.
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