judiciaryThe other day the former speaker of Lok Sabha and an eminent lawyer of the nation Mr. Some Nath Chatterjee and Justice A. K. Gangully were who just retired as a judge of Supreme Court were embroiled in a judicial row. While the former speaker always maintained that all the organs of our Parliamentary democracy should strictly within the respective domain as assigned by our Constitution and has been a vocal critic of judicial activism, former judge of Supreme Court Justice Gangully wondered aloud if that  did not smack of double standards as Mr. Chatterjee was the one who moved a Public Interest  litigation on the behalf of the railways employees who were summarily thrown out of their jobs for participating in a strike which lasted for several days through an administrative fiat. It is clear enough that both these eminent and erudite legal personalities have merits in their respective arguments. The founding fathers of  our Constitution were  quite wise and framed  this monumental document  which laid greater emphasis on checks and balances. No organ was tried to be made more powerful than the other. Experiences over the last few decades have clearly shown that there have been instances where timely intervention by the judiciary has strengthened our democracy and the nation has emerged stronger than ever before. Now let us examine what is a Public Interest Litigation - its role and impact in Indian contexts. judiciary2    

How does Public Interest Litigation differ from a normal judicial process? While instituting any judicial process or action - be it criminal or civil - the locus standi of the parties involved in the litigation is important. The parties directly affected move the court. But in the case of a Public Interest Litigation - the right to remedy a wrong extends beyond the parties who are aggrieved. Thus the procedure for filing a PIL is quite different as the objectives are. Those who are incapable in terms of financial resources or otherwise get opportunities for agitating their case before higher judiciary. For example, the tale of exploitation of bonded labour was taken up by a journalist through a PIL. Even courts take suo moto cognizance of such cases and initiate judicial process. These days a letter to the sitting judges can give rise to launching of a judicial process. The kind of criticism we hear over the active role of the judiciary mostly relate to PIL cases.judiciary3

Having discussed the background of the nature of PIL , let us examine its evolution over the decades and its positive effects in ensuring justice to the needy and disadvantaged. It is of interest to observe that the number of PILs revolved around land rights  in the initial decade after independence as the government of the day sought to implement some socialism-oriented  land reforms which were resisted on the strength of Fundamental Rights as enshrined in the Constitution. The inviolable nature of these rights which were the subject-matters of several PIL cases and the verdicts clearly established the fact that 'parliamentary sovereignty' in making laws could not supplant or supersede what is established in the Constitution as its core features. For example, a person detained under a law enacted by Parliament must pass the test of Articles 14,19 and 21. The wordings of these Articles make it abundantly clear that any law which intends to curb personal liberty of a person must submit itself to the tests of fairness, reasonableness  and it should not attempt at going beyond the line mandated by the Constitutional provisions. To put it more appropriately, the law should be free from all arbitrariness and amenable to  democratic ethos. As time passed by ,the concept of personal liberty which are sought to be protected under our Constitution, started undergoing changes. Judges interpreted them in their own lights and perspectives which also drew murmurs of criticism from various quarters. The former chief justice of  Supreme Court expounded on right to life thus : We think that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and the facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms." judiciary4    

In the mid-60s when Indira Gandhi took over the mantle of prime ministership of the country and her socialistic ambitions giving a new thrust to the  Directive Principles  as embodied in the Constitution in Chapter IV, some PIL s came before the court challenging some of the acts enacted in Parliament. Initially the court took a strict view on the lines that some of the core features in our Constitution could not changed in any form as these are beyond the legislative competence of Parliament. In the celebrated case: Keshavananda Bharati Vs. State of Kerala, the Supreme Court in a narrow majority ruled that 'basic structure' of the Constitution could not be tinkered with by Parliament. In the later years courts started attaching greater importance to principles which are not mandatory in nature but mere guidelines under the Principles of Directive Policy of the Constitution. So the emphasis was greater on harmonious interpretation of both Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles. The observation  made in the case of Bihar Legal Support Society Vs. The Chief Justice of India & others, truly reflected this new  perspective: The majority of our people of our country are subjected to this denial of 'access to justice' and overtaken by despair and helplessness, they continue to remain victims of an exploitative society where economic power is concentrated in the hands of a few and it is used for perpetuation of domination over large masses of human beings...... the strategy of Public Interest Litigation has been evolved by this court with a view to bringing justice within the easy reach of the poor and disadvantaged sections of the community."   The above observations are pregnant with profound meanings in the  sense that needs for responding to challenges of an evolving nation was taken cognizance of  by courts. It is a radical concept of taking justice to the door-steps of persons who are neither in a position to seek justice in terms money or otherwise to knock at the portals of justice!

As pointed out earlier the locus standi concept is completely different in Public Interest Litigation. The Supreme Court in the case of S.P.Gupta Vs. Union of India by a 7-judge bench spoke very lucidly and it may be quoted: It must now be regarded as well-settled law where a person who has suffered a legal wrong or a legal injury or whose legal right or legally protected interest is violated, is unable to approach the court on account of some disability or it is not practicable for him to move the court  for some other sufficient reasons, such as his socially or economically disadvantaged position, some other person can invoke the assistance of the court for the purpose of providing the judicial redress to the person wronged or injured, so that the legal wrong or  injury caused to that person does not go unredressed and justice is done to him." The tone and tenor of these words perfectly make it clear that the one whose legal rights or legal interests are breached may not necessarily the person directly invoking the assistance of the court.judiciary5

In India the relevance and importance of Public Interest Litigation has been  momentous. These litigations mainly centred around public issues of profound importance. Ecological, environmental,social and a host of other issues came up before courts and their intervention made a lot of difference to the existing state of affair. Be it gender discrimination, employment of child labour, corruption in awarding contracts in Asian Games etc, the courts have delivered on the challenges of time and by rising to the occasion to meet the ends of justice.               


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