Public interest litigation


Public interest litigation is the use of the law to advance human rights and equality, or raise issues of broad public concern.  It helps advance the cause of minority or disadvantaged groups or individuals.

Public interest cases may arise from both public and private law matters.  Public law concerns the various rules and regulations that govern the exercise of power by public bodies.  Private law concerns those cases in which a public body is not involved, and can be found in areas such as employment law or family law.  Public interest litigation is most commonly used to challenge the decisions of public authorities by judicial review.  Judicial review is a form of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action, or a failure to act, by a public body. Judicial review is concerned with whether the law has been correctly applied, and the right procedures have been followed.  For more information on judicial review and how to bring a judicial review challenge.

The value of public interest litigation

Public interest litigation can:

  • Clarify the law.
  • Hold public bodies to account by ensuring that they make appropriate decisions, act fairly and transparently and within the remit of their powers. 
  • Help develop the law by giving judges the opportunity to interpret legislation
  • Give vulnerable people a voice by highlighting an important issue and providing a platform for advocating for their rights.
  • Raise awareness of important issues encouraging public debate and media coverage.


Public interest litigation gives a wider description to the right to equality, life and personality, which is guaranteed under part III of the Constitution of India. It also functions as an effective instrument for changes in the society or social welfare. Through public interest litigation, any public or person can seek remedy on behalf of the oppressed class by introducing a PIL.

Who can file it ?

Any Indian citizen can file a PIL, the only condition being that it should not be filed with a private interest, but in larger public interest. At times, even the Court can take cognizance of a matter if it is one of utmost public importance, and appoint an advocate to handle the case.

Filing a PIL under article 32, 226 Constitution of India or section 133 Cr. P. C

The court must be satisfied that the Writ petition fulfills some basic needs for PIL as the letter is addressed by the aggrieved person, public spirited individual and a social action group for the enforcement of legal or Constitutional rights to any person who are not able to approach the court for redress. Any citizen can file a public case by filing a petition:

  • Under Art 32 of the Indian Constitution, in the Supreme Court.
  • Under Art 226 of the Indian Constitution, in the High Court.
  • Under sec. 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code, in a Magistrate’s court.

What are the issues on which a PIL cannot be filed?

The Supreme Court has released a list of guidelines regarding the filing of PIL according to which PIL cannot be filed in the following cases:

  • Matters related to landlord-tenant
  • Matters related to services
  • Pension and Gratuity related matters
  • Complaints against central and state government departments and local bodies, excluding issues related to items 1 to 10 mentioned in the list of guidelines.
  • Matters related to admission in medical and other educational institutions
  • Matters related to admission in medical and other educational institutions
  • Petition for early hearing of pending cases in High Court or subordinate courts.

Weaknesses of PIL

PIL actions may sometimes give rise to the problem of competing rights. For instance, when a court orders the closure of a polluting industry, the interests of the workmen and their families who are deprived of their livelihood may not be taken into account by the court.

It could lead to overburdening of courts with frivolous PILs by parties with vested interests. PILs today have been appropriated for corporate, political and personal gains. Today the PIL is no more limited to problems of the poor and the oppressed.

Cases of Judicial Overreach by the Judiciary in the process of solving socio-economic or environmental problems can take place through the PILs. PIL matters concerning the exploited and disadvantaged groups are pending for many years. Inordinate delays in the disposal of PIL cases may render many leading judgments merely of academic value.


Ban on Burning of Effigies of Ravana on Dussehra

Anand Prakash Sharma, a UP-based journalist and social activist, argued in Hindi that every year a huge amount of money is “wasted” on the burning of effigies. He added that burning of Ravana’s effigy has not been mentioned in any religious or mythological book.

People watch as effigies of demon king Ravana, his brother Kumbhkarana and son Meghnad are burnt during Vijayadashami in Amritsar on September 30, 2017.

Court said “Have you read Article 25 of the Constitution? It says that everyone has the right to practice his/her religion,” retorted the court. It dismissed the PIL, adding: “We have no jurisdiction to go into what is good or bad. We go into what is legal and what is illegal. You do what you feel is good for your faith and let others do what is good for their faith.”

Policy on ‘Vande Mataram’

The court refused to entertain the plea on issuing separate guidelines for Vande Mataram. It noted there was no concept of a national song in law. “We do not intend to enter into any debate as far as the national song is concerned… Be it clearly noted, Article 51A(a) of the Constitution (fundamental duties) does not refer to ‘National Song’. It only refers to National Flag and National Anthem,” noted the court.


Public Interest Litigation has produced astonishing results which were unthinkable three decades ago. Degraded bonded laborers, tortured under trials and women prisoners, humiliated inmates of protective women’s home, blinded prisoners, exploited children, beggars, and many others have been given relief through judicial intervention.

The greatest contribution of PIL has been to enhance the accountability of the governments towards the human rights of the poor. The PIL develops a new jurisprudence of the accountability of the state for constitutional and legal violations adversely affecting the interests of the weaker elements in the community.

However, the Judiciary should be cautious enough in the application of PILs to avoid Judicial Overreach that is volatile of the principle of Separation of Power. Besides, the frivolous PILs with vested interests must be discouraged to keep its workload manageable.

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