Public interest litigation in India : a socio-legal study
Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India began in the late 1970s. For the first time the rights of prisoners, bonded labourers, other neglected peoples and issues were considered in the judicial forum. Using their inherent powers under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, a few judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts made access to justice easier. Anyone acting in the public interest was permitted to file a petition on behalf of those unable to do so themselves, or for issues of grave public importance. Lawyers, social activists, concerned individuals and even judges approached the courts. Aside from locus standi, other procedural norms were relaxed, including the need to file a proper petition. Once admitted, attempts were made to resolve litigations using a conciliatory form of justice. Offending state authorities were encouraged to co-operate with the Court, which in turn took on the role of fact-finder, when appropriate, and appointed commissions of enquiry. Most of the reported and many unreported PIL cases, filed from its inception until April 1994, have been examined. Interviews with petitioners and lawyers have revealed much about PIL, and have resulted in the discussion of many unreported cases. Interviews of Supreme Court Judges, administrative officials in the courts and analysts of Indian law have enabled the study to extend to all aspects of the legal process as it relates to PIL. This new form of litigation in the courtroom thus provides a focal point for the study of the Indian legal system. The perception that inequities could be resolved through the legislative or administrative processes had given way to a belief that recourse to legal action was the only mechanism through which rights could be upheld. Thus, the initial agenda was to introduce the social justice considerations of poverty and inequality into the court, whilst making legal institutions more accessible. The hundreds of documented PIL cases reflect a huge range of issues and concerns. While many do fulfil the initial mandate, PIL has often been used as another available legal tool that facilitates access to the courts and increases the public profile of the petitioner. For many of those who have used PIL in an effort to counter serious violations of rights, the inherent limitations of legal action and the poor implementation of favourable Court orders have rendered PIL a meaningless exercise. For some, PIL has provided necessary short term redress or has focused attention on issues never before discussed in a national forum. Whatever the outcome, PIL has necessitated the recognition that every Indian citizen should have access to justice.