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Criminal Justice System And Public Interest Litigation

This doctrinal article aims to highlight the concept and development of public interest litigation (PIL) in the Indian criminal justice system as well as focuses on the judicial pronouncements which have extended an aiding arm towards the positive implications and prosperity of the same.

The process of social legislation is one of the most important developments that took place in the recent years and the social reform in the form of legal action is known as Public interest litigation. India being a developing country, justice was a remote reality for our illiterate, underprivileged and exploited fellow countrymen untill the emergence of PIL. Thus PIL is a process of obtaining justice for the people and of voicing people's grievances through the legal process. The development of PIL is not, however flawless but with both the pros and cons PIL acts like a propeller in the criminal administration.

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time we fail to protest." - Elie Wiesel.

The Supreme Court of India has eradicated one of the grave hurdles faced by the poor through the process of reinterpretation of the concept of locus standi and has paved the way for easy access to the court of justice. The upgraded observation is such that if a person or group of persons suffers any injury and he/they cannot move before the court due to poverty, lack of awareness or any other disability, any public spirited person can file a petition on his or their behalf. It is hoped that this new approach will give meaning to the constitutional objectives of socio economic justice for all.

Meaning of PIL:

The well founded concept of PIL is nowhere defined in any statute or enactment. In Black's Law Dictionary, PIL means a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest of pecuniary nature or to establish any legal right or liability if affected.

Therefore PIL is a proceeding in which an individual or group seeks relief in the interest of general public and not for his own purpose. Responding to the demands of the changing times and needs of the common, the courts are putting effort to become the court of the poor and struggling masses.

The genesis:
In the mid 1960s the term PIL originated in the United States. Various movements have contributed to the development of PIL in the nineteenth century. In 1876, the first legal aid office was established in New York in 1876. The movement started receiving financial support in 1960s. This encouraged lawyers and public spirited persons can take up the cases of the underprivileged and fight against injustice to the weaker section. In England, PIL made a remarkable note during the years of Lord Denning in the 1970s.

PIL had begun in India towards the end of 1970s and came into full bloom in the 1980s. Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer and Justice P. N. Bhagwati have delivered some landmark judgements which have opened up new vistas of PIL.

Nature of PIL:

In the words of Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, PIL is a process of obtaining justice for the people and of voicing people's grievances through the legal process. The aim of PIL is to give to common people the access to courts and obtain legal redressal against injustice committed against them. Justice Bhagwati opined that PIL is not in the nature of advisory legislation but it is a challenge and opportunity to the government.

When the court entertains PIL, it does not do so in a caviling spirit or in a confrontational mood, but the attempt is made only to ensure observance of social and economic programs, framed for the benefits of the have nots. The court is thus merely assisting in the realisation of constitutional objectives. Thus the compulsion for judicial innovation of the technique of public interest action is to usher in an egalitarian social order and a welfare state.

Essentials of PIL:

The main presumption behind PIL was that radical changes in society would come about through the courts of justice if fundamental rights of weak and poor citizens are enforced effectively. The new technique fashioned by the architects of PIL would bring about for reaching changes in the judicial system of the country.

Fertilizer Corporation vs. Union of India, AIR 1981 SC 434

In S. P Gupta's case, Justice Bhagwati pointed out the following essentials of PIL
  1. There must be a legal wrong caused to a person or to a determinate class of people.
  2. The wrong must arise from violation of any constitutional or legal right.
  3. The wronged person must be unable to approach the court for relief by reason of poverty, helplessness or social or economic disability.
  4. Any member of the public can seek judicial relief for the above wrong.
  5. The person initiating the proceeding must act bonafide to get redress for a public grievance and not to pursue personal gains or from malicious motives.
  6. If the case is otherwise appropriate for PIL then the court can act even on a letter addressed to it.
    (S. P. Gupta vs. Union of India, AIR1982 SC 149)

Constitutional perspective:
The movement of PIL was given a radical thrust by the new liberal interpretation of the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policies. The meaning and scope of Article 14, 21, 32 and 226 of the Constitution were given a wide interpretation in favor of the weaker section of the society.

Article 14 was interpreted to provide equality of law and equal protection of law. In fact this voices for the right against executive and administrative arbitration in any decision making. article 21 guaranteeing the right to life has secured the every aspect of livelihood, similarly, Article 32, 226 allows the common individuals to directly move before the High Courts or Supreme Court is any of the Fundamental rights are infringed.

New interpretation of 'locus standi':
The Latin word 'locus standi' signifies the legal right of a person to file a suit or conduct a litigation in the court of law. As per the traditional Anglo Saxon concept, locus standi means only the person whose rights are violated could sue for judicial redress.

However, this ancient doctrine was found insufficient to meet the needs of a developing country. In the new age of collective rights, the strict rule of locus standi was first relaxed in S. P. Gupta's case. The seven judges constitution bench ruled that any member of the public acting bonafide and having sufficient interest in instituting an action for redressal of public wrong, could move to the court. In the famous Judges Transfer case the Supreme Court ruled that any member of the public having sufficient interpretation can approach the court for enforcing rights of others.

PIL in USA & SAL in India:

Prof. Bakshi opined that PIL in India should be labeled as Social Action Legislation (SAL) because of it's distinctive characteristics. He contended that whereas PIL has focused on people's participation in governmental policy making, in India, PIL primarily focused on the disadvantaged section. Unlike India, PIL in USA sought to represent interest without groups such as consumerism or environment. In India the role of PIL is to bring social change through active role of the judges.

Although there are concrete differences between how PIL jurisdiction has unfolded in USA and India, the distinction as to the subject matter or basic objectives is not that much as it used to be when an argument was made to label PIL or SAL.

Impact on criminal administration:
PIL is a component through which the poor are enabled to get equity. The advancement of this authentic instrument demonstrated advantages for creating a nation like India. PIL has been utilized as a strategy to battle the abominations winning in the general public. The courts subsequently got the chances to keep in mind the cases being recorded and ensure the genuine enthusiasm of the solicitor and hence the idea of the clarification for activity is derived to maintain a strategic distance from pointless suits.

Constructive criticism:
The development of PIL has also uncovered it's pitfalls and drawbacks. The abuse of PIL is increasing with the extended and multifaceted use. Many have found PIL as ahm handy tool since frivolous cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil proceedings . Just aa a weapon is meant for defence, can be equally effectively for an offense, the modification of locus standi rule has permitted privately motivated interests to pose as public interest.

However the Apex court had framed certain guidelines to govern the management and disposal of PIL.

Concluding observation:
Therefore to conclude we can say that many a PIL filed in the recent past have helped to restore the fundamental rights. It is now left to the social activists and non-governmental organizations interested in the development of the weaker section of the society to make the best use of the recent development in the judicial system of India and to bring adequate socio-economic transformation in society . At the end we'll surely look forward for a bright morning when justice will be served at every single corner of our nation.

  3. .
Written By: Saheli Chatterjee, Advocate
Email: [email protected]

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