Public Interest Litigation: A Brief Introduction and History

As the name suggests, Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is an action of carrying on a legal or judicial proceeding in a court of law for the purpose of enforcing any legal right or legally protected interest.

In this form of litigation, the case is initiated not by the aggrieved party but either by the court itself or by any private party. Which means the court can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo motu or cases can start off on the petition filed by any public-spirited individual.

Here the reason behind filing the petition must be to safeguard, protect and preserve interests and rights of the general public or common man and not of any individual.

A PIL can be initiated to enforce any legal right which has been violated by the state or redress any matter where the interests of public at large have been endangered by the action or inaction of the state. Public interest means those interests which concern the public at large.

A matter in which the public or a section of the public is interested, becomes one of public interest. Some examples of matter of public interest are pollution, climate change, human rights, women’s rights, corruption, personal liberty, child abuse, prisoner’s rights, etc. Public interest litigation is not defined in any statute or legislation. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large. 

The concept of PIL is relatively new and came into existence as a result of judicial activism of the 1960s in the United States. In the 1960s the US was in a state of social embroilment which led to multifarious and significant reforms in various institutions of the government and among them introduction of PIL or public interest litigation was one. PIL was an effort to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests. And the most important reason behind this is that the judiciary realised and recognised that ordinary marketplace for legal services failed to provide such services to significant sections of the population and their significant interests.

Although the concept of PIL had its origin in the USA, with the passage of time it has been introduced gradually in many other countries including India, with miscellaneous modifications and adaptations subject to the contemporary social realities.


As discussed earlier, the term ‘public interest’ means act beneficial to general public. It is necessarily an action taken solely for public purpose and not any private purpose.

According to the traditional rule of locus standi, the right to move the court for judicial redressal is available only to those whose legal right and legally protected interest has been infringed or violated. Therefore, any person, other than the victim of violation of legal right or interest, who is not personally affected cannot knock the doors of justice as a representative of the victim or the aggrieved party. Likewise, in India, it was the general rule that a person whose fundamental right is violated, only he may file a petition in the High Court under Article 226 or in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, which is called the writ jurisdiction, for necessary personal relief, but not public relief.

This traditional rule has been considerably and reasonably relaxed by the Supreme Court through its rulings in post-emergency India of late 1970s and early1980s. From then onwards for the benefit of the poor or socially or economically disadvantaged class who are unaware of their rights or unable to go to the court, any public-spirited person can file a writ petition on their behalf.

Every citizen of India whether he is rich or poor, literate or illiterate, privileged or disadvantaged, socially backward or advanced has the right to enjoy the basic human or fundamental rights mentioned in the Constitution of India. Therefore, any social organization, NGO, social worker, social activist or any public-spirited person who is genuinely interested in providing justice to the people belonging to any poor, illiterate, backward, deprived, exploited, destitute and oppressed class of the society can come forward and fight for their rights and help them get justice.


The seed of the concept of PIL was at the first sown in the Indian legal system by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in 1976, without designating the term ‘public interest litigation’, in the case of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay v. M/S Abdulbhai Faizullabhai & Ors.[1], while disposing off an industrial dispute in regard to the payment of loans.

The first reported case of PIL was in 1979 which focused on the inhuman conditions of prisons and under trial prisoners, in Hussainara Khatoon & Ors v. State of Bihar[2]. Hussainara was one of the six women prisoners and this case earned her the title “the Mother of PILs”.

In the case Fertilizer Corporation Kamgar Union v. Union of India and Ors.[3],the terminology ‘public interest litigation’ was first used. The concept then gained momentum gradually and steadily, and took its root firmly in the Indian judiciary and fully blossomed in the early 1980s.

Justice P.N. Bhagwati paved the way to a new era of the PIL movement in the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India[4]. ‘In this case it was held that any member of the public or social action group acting in good faith can invoke the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts or the Supreme Court seeking redressal against infringement or violation of a legal or constitutional right of persons who due to social or economic or any other disability cannot approach the Court.’


PIL is one of the many important and revolutionary innovations of the Supreme Court which contributed to the evolution of the Indian judicial system in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This period witnessed a spate of myriad PILs with regard to:

  • Prisoners’ rights and prison administration.
  • Protection from bonded or contractual child labour.
  • Protection of environment.
  • Protection of women from exploitation and sexual harassment.
  • Free medical aid.
  • Widening the scope of right to life and personal liberty.
  • Labour rights.
  • Activating the investigative process and fair and speedy trial.
  • Other human rights.

A few important cases are as follows:

  • M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors.[5]

The Supreme Court banned child labour by ordering that no children below the age of 15 years can be engaged in any hazardous type of work in any factory or mine.

  • Sheela Barse & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors.[6]

It was pointed out by a journalist that a lot of children were languishing in various prisons in the country in spite of Children Act, Juvenile Delinquency Act and First Offenders Act whereby children should not be allowed to intermingle with hardened criminals. A child offender should be treated differently by special arrangement. The Supreme Court, taking a humanitarian view, released them all and ordered for their rehabilitation and gainful employment.

  • Pt. Parmanand Katara v. Union of India & Ors.[7]

The Supreme Court held that like legal aid which is made available to the poor, medical aid should also be extended free of cost to the poor people.

  • Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors.[8]

In this case the Supreme Court condemned and criticized the inhuman treatment of workers of a stone quarry and ordered to the release of bonded labours and implement laws and policies for their welfare.


Gradually, PIL passed the test time and proved to be a potent weapon in the hands of public for enforcement of legal rights and public duties, non-enforcement of which may result or have resulted in public injury.

With the expansion of the horizon of the locus standi, more and more cases relating to PIL have been filed in the courts. With a view to make them more accessible to the poor and disadvantaged, the courts have facilitated some flexibility and innovation in the process of filing a PIL.

In case of gross violation of human rights and issues as serious as the latter, the courts have entertained just a mere letter addressed to the court a writ petition. Also, in some cases, the courts have taken suo motu cognizance of news reports published in various newspapers and treated them as petitions. The courts have also started appointing commissioners for the purpose of gathering facts and evidence in respect to complains of breach of fundamental right made by any weaker section of the society.

[1] 1976 AIR 1455.

[2] 1979 AIR 1369.

[3] 1981 AIR 344.

[4] AIR 1982 SC 149.

[5] 1991 AIR 417.

[6] 1986 SCALE (2)230.

[7] 1989 AIR 2039.

[8] 1984 AIR 802.

Aishwarya Says:

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