Public Interest Litigation: A Knight in Shining Armour

The Preamble of our Indian constitution envisages ‘Justice for all’, amongst other tenets. Indian judiciary in the recent past has traversed an unbeaten road. From being the guardian of the interests of an individual, to enabling the recognition of public interest as mode of entrusting locus standi on an individual for securing fundamental rights entrenched in the constitution, the seventy-two odd glorifying years of the judiciary are marked by many momentous instances.

“Public interest” denotes the interest of the people of the land. These interests can be allied in varied directions. All in all, one that integrates itself with the obligations and rights laid out in the grundnorm, represents the public interest. With changing times, fluidity in the interpretation of the term “public interest” has also been under continuous deliberation and interpretation. Since an issue of public interest, denotes a collective representation of opinions, concerns and beliefs; one citizen or person, belonging to the aggrieved class, should not be made a sole party to the dispute. A blow to the public interest hits each and every class of citizens.[1] Therefore, representation by one, as a sentry for the protection of the public interest, denotes a new form of litigation, conceptualised as “public interest litigation”.[2]

 

Public Interest Litigation: Origin and Constitutional Aspects 

A result of outstanding debt, Public interest litigation was envisaged under the Constitution with a vision of bringing the people of India at parity with each other.[3] The marginalised sections of society have always dithered before striking the portals of the court for the establishment of their rights and obligations.[4] In such a scenario, the conventional rules of locus standi were appropriately bent by the Indian Courts to pursue the cause of justice for all and sundry.[5] Justice is not only essential for pursuing the entrenched precepts of the Indian Constitution, but also for harmonization and integration of the streams of human rights, which have latterly enveloped the course of rights-based litigation in India.[6] Therefore, an increase in the panoply of human rights, provides yet another rationale for the growth of public interest litigation in India. The executives and the legislature have been endowed with a quintessential role in the Indian Constitution. Article 12 of the Indian Constitution requires them not to pass laws that impede the attainment of fundamental rights. Recourse to the judiciary in achieving the mandates of the constitution and upholding the status of fundamental rights is in itself qualified as a fundamental right. Such being the case, the Indian judiciary introduced the concept of public interest litigation to provide an answer to the conundrum facing the ailing state functionaries.

With a spurt in these lawsuits, Indian courts have cautiously attempted to lay out guidelines for how such litigation can be pursued. Not every lis draws public interest. As a result, under the guise of public interest, lis fails to provide a suitable remedy to the needy. The Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution and the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution have held that they have the power to entertain public interest litigation.[7] So much so that Courts under Articles 32 and 226 have, in furtherance of the public interest, treated a private interest case as a public interest case.[8] Both Article 32 and Article 226, vouch for an inquiry into locus standi.[9] This conventional rule of standing has been diluted to give way to class actions.[10] In public interest litigation, unlike a traditional dispute resolution mechanism, there is no determination of individual rights.[11] The compulsion for the judicial innovation of the technique of public interest litigation arises out of the constitutional promise of a social and economic transformation to usher in a welfare state.[12] 

 

Judicial Interpretation of Public Interest Litigation

Article 32 of the Constitution represents the heart and soul of this foundational document. The Indian Supreme Court has made a concerted effort to improve judicial access for the masses by relaxing the traditional rule of locus standi.[14], and it has allowed human rights organizations to intervene on behalf of victims, where it has determined that questions of broader public interest necessitate such intervention.[15] In Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration,[16] a prisoner sent a telegram to a judge complaining of forced handcuff on him and demanded implicit protection against humiliation and torture. The court gave necessary directions by relaxing the strict rule of locus standi. 

In Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardhichand & Others,[17] Krishna Iyer, J. while relaxing the rule of locus standi, the Apex Court held that “ The truth is that a few profound issues of processual jurisprudence of great strategic significance to our legal system face us and we must zero-in on them as they involve problems of access to justice for the people beyond the blinkered rules of ‘standing’ of British Indian vintage. If the center of gravity of justice is to shift, as the Preamble to the Constitution mandates, from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of public interest litigation, these issues must be considered… Why drive common people to public interest action? Where Directive Principles have found statutory expression in Do’s and Don’ts the court will not sit idly by and allow municipal government to become a statutory mockery. The law will be relentlessly enforced and the plea of poor finance will be poor alibi when people in misery cry for justice.” Justice Bhagwati of the Supreme Court in his judgment in S.P. Gupta v. President of India & Others,[18] altogether dismissed the traditional rule of standing and in its place, the Court prescribed the modern rule on standing while holding that “where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of violation of any constitutional or legal right or any burden is imposed in contravention of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened and such person or determinate class of persons is by reason of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position, unable to approach the Court for relief, any member of the public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ, in the High Court under Article 226, and in case of breach of any fundamental right, in this Court under Article 32.”

Indian Courts have become so inclined towards accepting litigation involving public interest that they have maintained relaxed procedural norms to entertain writs for continuing such litigations.[19] In Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra,[20] Sheela Barse, a journalist, complained of custodial violence against women prisoners in Bombay. Her letter was treated as a writ petition and the directions were given by the court. In Dr. Upendra Baxi (I) v. State of Uttar Pradesh & Another,[21] two distinguished law Professors of the Delhi University addressed a letter to this court regarding inhuman conditions that were prevalent in the Agra Protective Home for Women. The court heard the petition for a number of days and gave important directions by which the living conditions of the inmates were significantly improved in the Agra Protective Home for Women. 

In Labourers Working on Salal Hydro Project v. State of Jammu & Kashmir & Others,[22] on the basis of a news item in the Indian Express regarding the condition of the construction workers, the Court took notice and observed that construction work is hazardous employment and no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in such work by reason of the prohibition enacted in Article 24. It also held that this constitutional prohibition must be enforced by the Central Government. In Paramjit Kaur (Mrs.) v. State of Punjab & Others,[23] a telegram was sent to a Judge of the Apex Court which was treated as a habeas corpus petition. The allegation was that the husband of the appellant was kidnapped by some people in police uniform from a busy residential area of Amritsar. The Court took serious note of it and directed that the investigation of the case be handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

 

Public Interest Litigations sans the Public Interest 

Though, the Indian Courts have entertained public interest litigation in the recent past, in a plethora of cases they have also shut the portals of the Courts to those who have come with unclean hands to avenge themselves in the guise of public interest litigation. In BALCO Employees’ Union (Regd.) v. Union of India & Others[24], the Court recognized that there have been, in recent times, increasing instances of abuse of public interest litigation. Accordingly, the Court has devised a number of strategies to ensure that the attractive brand name of public interest litigation is not used for suspicious products of mischief. 

Firstly, the Supreme Court has limited standing in public interest litigation to individuals “acting bonafide”. Secondly, it has sanctioned the imposition of “exemplary costs” as a deterrent against frivolous and vexatious public interest litigations. Thirdly, instructions have been issued to the High Courts to be more selective in entertaining public interest litigations. 

In S.P. Gupta v. President of India & Others,[25] the Court has found that this liberal standard makes it critical to limit standing to individuals “acting bona fide”. To avoid entertaining frivolous and vexatious petitions under the guise of public interest litigation, the Court has excluded two groups of persons from obtaining standing in public interest litigation petitions. First, the Supreme Court has rejected awarding standing to “meddlesome interlopers.” Second, it has denied standing to interveners bringing public interest litigation for personal gain. Further, the court cautioned that important jurisdiction of public interest litigation may be confined to legal wrongs and legal injuries for a group of people or a class of persons. It should not be used for individual wrongs because individuals can always seek redressal from legal aid organizations. This is a matter of prudence and not a rule of law. 

In Chhetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangharsh Samiti v. State of U.P & Others[26], the Court withheld standing from the applicant on grounds that the applicant brought the suit motivated by enmity between the parties. The Court again, in this case, emphasized that Article 32 is a great and salutary safeguard for the preservation of the fundamental rights of the citizens. The superior Courts have to ensure that this weapon under Article 32 should not be misused or abused by any individual or organization.  In Neetu v. State of Punjab & Others[27], the Court concluded that it is necessary to impose exemplary costs to ensure that the message goes in the right direction and that petitions filed with an oblique motive do not have the approval of the Courts. In S.P. Anand v. H.D. Deve Gowda & Others[28], the Court warned that it is of the utmost importance that those who invoke the jurisdiction of this Court seeking a waiver of the locus standi rule must exercise restraint in moving the Court by not plunging into areas wherein they are not well-versed. 

In Sanjeev Bhatnagar v. Union of India & Others[29], this Court went a step further by imposing a monetary penalty of Rs10,000/- against an Advocate for filing a frivolous and vexatious petition. The Court found that the petition was devoid of public interest, and instead labelled it as “publicity interest litigation”.. In Dattaraj Nathuji Thaware v. State of Maharashtra & Others[30], the Supreme Court affirmed the High Court’s monetary penalty against a member of the Bar for filing a public interest litigation petition on the same grounds. The Court found that the petition was nothing but a camouflage to foster personal dispute. Observing that no one should be permitted to bring disgrace to the noble profession, the Court concluded that the imposition of the penalty of Rs. 25,000 by the High Court was appropriate. Evidently, the Supreme Court has set a clear precedent validating the imposition of monetary penalties against frivolous and vexatious public interest petitions, especially when filed by Advocates. The Court expressed its anguish on misuse of the forum of the Court under the garb of public interest litigation and observed that public interest litigation is a weapon which has to be used with great care and circumspection and the judiciary has to be extremely alert in ascertaining the true intentions behind the beautiful veil of social justice.  

The Court must not allow its process to be abused for oblique considerations. In Charan Lal Sahu & Others v. Giani Zail Singh & Another[31], the Supreme Court observed that “we would have been justified in passing a heavy order of costs against the two petitioners” for filing “a light-hearted and indifferent” public interest litigation petition. However, to prevent “nipping in the bud a well-founded claim on a future occasion” the Court opted against imposing monetary costs on the petitioners. In this case, this Court concluded that the petition was careless, meaningless, clumsy and against the public interest. Therefore, the Court ordered the Registry to initiate prosecution proceedings against the petitioner under the Contempt of Courts Act. Additionally, the court forbade the Registry from entertaining any future public interest litigation petitions filed by the petitioner, who was an Advocate in this case.

In J. Jayalalitha v. Government of Tamil Nadu & Others[32], the Court laid down that public interest litigation can be filed by any person challenging the misuse or improper use of any public property including the political party in power for the reason that interest of individuals cannot be placed above or preferred to a larger public interest. In Holicow Pictures Pvt. Ltd. v. Prem Chandra Mishra & Others[33], the Court observed that “It is depressing to note that on account of such trumpery proceedings initiated before the Courts, innumerable days are wasted, the time which otherwise could have been spent for disposal of cases of the genuine litigants. Though we spare no efforts in fostering and developing the laudable concept of public interest litigation and extending our long arm of sympathy to the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed and the needy, whose fundamental rights are  infringed and violated and whose grievances go unnoticed, un-represented and unheard; yet we cannot avoid but express our opinion that while genuine litigants with legitimate grievances relating to civil matters involving properties worth hundreds of millions of rupees and criminal cases in which persons sentenced to death facing gallows under untold agony and persons sentenced to life imprisonment and kept in incarceration for long years, persons suffering from undue delay in service matters -government or private, persons awaiting the disposal of cases wherein huge amounts of public revenue or unauthorized collection of tax amounts are locked up, detenu expecting their release from the detention orders etc. etc. are all standing in a long serpentine queue for years with the fond hope of getting into the Courts and having their grievances redressed, the busybodies, meddlesome interlopers, wayfarers or officious interveners having absolutely no public interest except for personal gain or private profit either of themselves or as a proxy of others or for any other extraneous motivation or for glare of publicity break the queue muffing their faces by wearing the mask of public interest litigation and get into the Courts by filing vexatious and frivolous petitions and thus criminally waste the valuable time of the Courts and as a result of which the queue standing outside the doors of the Courts never moves, which piquant situation creates frustration in the minds of the genuine litigants and resultantly they lose faith in the administration of our judicial system.”

The Court has to be satisfied with:

(a) the credentials of the applicant;

(b) the prima facie correctness or nature of the information given by him;

(c) the information being not vague and indefinite.

The information should show the gravity and seriousness involved. Court has to strike balance between two conflicting interests;

(i) nobody should be allowed to indulge in wild and reckless allegations besmirching the character of others; and

(ii) avoidance of public mischief and avoid mischievous petitions seeking to assail, for oblique motives, justifiable executive actions.

The Courts also have to practice great caution in ensuring that while redressing a public grievance, it does not encroach upon the sphere reserved by the Constitution to the Executive and the Legislature, while maintaining a balance while dealing with imposters and busybodies or meddlesome interlopers impersonating as public-spirited holy men. In Janata Dal v. H.S. Chowdhary & Others[34], the court rightly cautioned that the expanded role of courts in the modern `social’ state demands greater judicial responsibility. In Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee & Another v. C.K. Rajan & Others [35], it was reiterated that the Court must ensure that its process is not abused. Therefore, the Court would be justified in insisting on furnishing of security before granting an injunction in appropriate cases. The Courts may impose heavy costs to ensure that the judicial process is not misused.

The bandwagon of public interest litigation has attained new heights in the recent past. With all the parameters drawn by Courts to adjudge what constitutes litigation related to the public interest, still, with blindfolded certainty; it cannot be said that a strait jacketed formula would serve as a panacea for all vexatious litigants to sieve through. With the Courts, always loaded with backlogs, the utopian dream of ‘justice for all” and in the “interest of all,” might straddle.

References: 

[1] (Traditionally used to the adversary system, we search for individual persons aggrieved. But a new class of litigation public interest litigation- where a section or whole of the community is involved (such as consumers’ organisations or NAACP-National Association for Advancement of Coloured People-in America), emerges in a developing country like ours, this pattern of public oriented litigation better fulfils the rule of law if it is to run close to the rule of life…The possible apprehension that widening legal standing with a public connotation may unloose a flood of litigation which may overwhelm the judges is misplaced because public resort to court to suppress public mischief is a tribute to the justice system.) Bar Council of Maharashtra v. M. V. Dabholkar & Others, 1976 SCR 306.

[2] (Our current processual jurisprudence is not of individualistic Anglo-Indian mould. It is broad-based and people-oriented, and envisions access to justice through `class actions’, `public interest litigation’, and `representative proceedings’. Indeed, little Indians in large numbers seeking remedies in courts through collective proceedings, instead of being driven to an expensive plurality of litigations, is an affirmation of participative justice in our democracy. We have no hesitation in holding that the narrow concepts of `cause of action’, `person aggrieved’ and individual litigation are becoming obsolescent in some jurisdictions.) Akhil Bharatiya Soshit Karamchari Sangh (Railway) v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1981 SC 298.

[3] (Public Interest Law is the name that has recently been given to efforts to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests. Such efforts have been undertaken in the recognition that ordinary market place for legal services fails to provide such services to significant segments of the population and to significant interests. Such groups and interests
 include the proper environmentalists, consumers, racial and ethnic minorities and others.) M/s Holicow Pictures Pvt. Ltd. v. Prem Chandra Mishra & Ors., AIR 2008 SC 913.

[4] (Public interest litigation is a cooperative or collaborative effort by the petitioner, the State of public authority and the judiciary to secure observance of constitutional or basic human rights, benefits and privileges upon poor, downtrodden and vulnerable sections of the society.) People’s Union for Democratic Rights & Others v. Union of India & Others, (1982) 3 SCC 235. 

[5] (Public interest litigation is part of the process of participative justice and `standing’ in civil litigation of that pattern must have liberal reception at the judicial doorsteps.) Fertilizer Corporation Kamagar Union Regd., Sindri & Others v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1981 SC 844.

[6] (Public interest litigation is for making basic human rights meaningful to the deprived and vulnerable sections of the community and to assure them social, economic and political justice.) Ramsharan Autyanuprasi & Another v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1989 SC 549.

[7] (The Court has all incidental and ancillary powers including the power to forge new remedies and fashion new strategies designed to enforce the fundamental rights.) M. C. Mehta & Another v. Union of India & Others, AIR 1987 SC 1086.

[8] Indian Banks Association v. Devkala Consultancy Service, AIR 2004 SC 2815.

[9] (Any person claiming of infraction of any fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution is at a liberty to move to the Supreme Court, but the rights that could be invoked under Article 32 must ordinarily be the rights of the person who complains of the infraction of such rights and approaches the Court for relief.) Narinderjit Singh Sahni v. Union of India, AIR 2001 SC 3810; see also Ruqmani v. Achuthan, AIR 1991 SC 983; see also Delhi Administration v. Madan Lal Nangia, AIR 2003 SC 4672.

[10] (The law as to locus standi has been diluted by the advent of the doctrine of public interest litigation.) Bangalore Medical Trust v. Muddappa, AIR 1991 SC 1902.

[11] (The traditional rule is flexible enough to take in those cases where the applicant has been prejudicially affected by an act or omission of an authority, even though he has no proprietary or even a fiduciary interest in the subject-matter. That apart, in exceptional cases even a stranger or a person who was not a party to the proceedings before the authority, but has a substantial and genuine interest in the subject-matter of the proceedings will be covered by this rule.) Jasbhai Motibhai Desai v. Roshan Kumar, Haji Bashir Ahmed & Others, (1976) 1 SCC 671.

[12] (The old doctrine of only relegating the aggrieved to the remedies available in civil law limits the role of the courts too much as protector and guarantor of the indefeasible rights of the citizens. The courts have the obligation to satisfy the social aspirations of the citizens because the courts and the law are for the people and expected to respond to their aspirations.) Smt. Nilabati Behera alias Lalita Behera v. State of Orissa & Others, AIR 1993 SC 1960.

[13] (Today, unfortunately, in our country the poor are priced out of the judicial system with the result that they are losing faith in the capacity of our legal system to (sic) about changes in their life conditions and to deliver justice to them. The poor in their contact with the legal system have always been on the wrong side of the line. They have always come across ‘law for the poor & rather than law of the poor’. The law is regarded by them as something mysterious and forbidding–always taking something away from them and not as a positive and constructive social device for changing the social economic order and improving their life conditions by conferring rights and benefits on them. The result is that the legal system has lost its credibility for the weaker section of the community.) Hussainara Khatoon & Others v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, Patna AIR 1979 SC 1369.

[14] The Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, Bombay v. Abdulbhai Faizullabhai Others, AIR 1976 SC 1455.

[15] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration & Others, AIR 1978 SC 1675.

[16] AIR 1980 SC 1535.

[17] AIR 1980 SC 1622.

[18] AIR 1982 SC 149.

[19] (public interest litigation should be encouraged when the Courts are apprised of gross violation of fundamental rights by a group or a class action or when basic human rights are invaded or when there are complaints of such acts as shock the judicial conscience that the courts, especially this Court, should leave aside procedural shackles and hear such petitions and extend its jurisdiction under all available provisions for remedying the hardships and miseries of the needy, the underdog and the neglected.)Shri Sachidanand Pandey & Another v. The State of West Bengal & Others, (1987) 2 SCC 295.

[20] AIR 1983 SC 378.

[21]  1983 (2) SCC 308.

[22] AIR 1984 SC 177.

[23]  (1996) 7 SCC 20.

[24] AIR 2002 SC 350.

[25] AIR 1982 SC 149.

[26] AIR 1990 SC 2060.

[27] AIR 2007 SC 758.

[28] AIR 1997 SC 272.

[29] AIR 2005 SC 2841.

[30] (2005) 1 SCC 590.

[31] AIR 1984 SC 309.

[32]  (1999) 1 SCC 53.

[33] AIR 2008 SC 913.

[34] (1992) 4 SCC 305.

[35] (2003) 7 SCC 546.

 

Image Credits: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay 

The bandwagon of public interest litigation has attained new heights in the recent past. With all the parameters drawn by Courts to adjudge what constitutes litigation related to the public interest, still, with blindfolded certainty; it cannot be said that a strait jacketed formula would serve as a panacea for all vexatious litigants to sieve through.

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