Who can file Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in which court?

1. Any citizen can file a PIL in the following courts:

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

2. However, the court must be satisfied that the writ petition fulfils 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 is not able to approach the court for redress.

Against whom Public Interest Litigation (PIL) can be filed?

A PIL can be filed against the State, Central, a state or local government, any other governmental authority and not any private party. The definition of State is the same as given under Article 12 of the Constitution and this includes the Governmental and Parliament of India and the Government and the Legislature of each of the States and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India.


Why is PIL filed? or Why is PIL important? or 10 Reasons of PIL Filing.

Some of the critical importance and scope of the PIL why it is filed in the court since 1970s, for examples:

  • PIL gives the common people access to the courts to obtain legal redress.
  • It is an important instrument of social changeand for maintaining the Rule of law and accelerating the balance between law and justice.
  • It makes justice accessible to the poor and the marginalised.
  • It is an important tool to make human rights reach those who have been denied rights.
  • It democratises the access of justiceto all.
  • It helps in judicial monitoring of state institutions like prisons, asylums, protective homes, etc.
  • It is an important tool for implementing the concept of judicial review.
  • It enhanced public participation in judicial review of administrative action.
  • It provides a wider scope promoting the right to equality.
  • Not only does it promote equality, but it also ensures the right to quality life and personality guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution of India.
  • It is solely responsible for providing relief and remedies of the writ jurisdiction.
  • It functions as an effective instrument for changing society and ensuring welfare.
  • Anyone can seek remedy on behalf of the under-privileged class by introducing the public interest litigation.

Apart from the obvious importance of the PIL, here is why it is valued as highly as it is and what can it do.

What can a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) do?

The PIL can do the following:

  • Clarify the Indian societal law.
  • Holding the public accountable by/and ensuring that they make appropriate decisions, act fair and transparent within their legal powers.
  • Aid in developing the law by providing the judges with the opportunity to accurately interpret the legislation.
  • Provide a voice to the voiceless and vulnerable by highlighting an important issue.
  • Provide Court’s judicial scope to concentrate on larger public issues such as the issues of Human Rights, consumer welfare and environment.
  • Provide a platform for vulnerable people to protect and practice their rights.
  • Raise awareness of societal issues, encourage public debates and increase accurate media coverage.

What are the weaknesses of PIL? or 5 Shortcomings or Demerits of PIL.

The weaknesses of PIL filing are observed in the following ways:

  • Many people started handling PIL as a tool for harassment because frivolous cases can be filed without a heavy court fee as compared to private litigations.
  • PIL actions may sometimes give rise to the problem of competing rights.For instance, when a court orders the closure of the 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 has been appropriated for corporate, political and personal gains. Today the PIL is no more limited to problems of the poor and the oppressed.
  • PIL as being misused in many ways, for private grievances in the grab of public interest by seeking publicity rather than supporting the public cause.
  • Cases of Judicial Overreachby the Judiciary in the process of solving socio-economic or environmental problems can take place through the PILs.
  • Restrictive rules of standing are an antithesis to an effective system of administration
  • 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.


The public interest litigation discourse in India can be judged on four parameters during its three developmental phases. The parameters are:

  • first, who initiated public interest litigation cases;
  • second, what was the subject matter/focus of public interest litigation;
  • third, against whom the relief was sought; and overall
  • fourth, how judiciary responded to PIL cases.

First Phase: Who initiated Public Interest Litigation (PIL) Cases?

It began in the late 1970s and continued through the 1980s, the PIL cases were generally filed by public-spirited persons such as lawyers, journalists, social activists, and academics. Most of the cases related to the rights of disadvantaged sections of society such as child labourers, bonded labourers, prisoners, mentally challenged, pavement dwellers, and women. The relief was sought against the action or non-action on the part of executive agencies resulting in violations of fundamental rights under the Constitution. During this phase, the judiciary responded by recognising the rights of disadvantaged sections and giving directions to the government to redress the alleged violations. In other words, in the first phase, the PIL truly became an instrument of the type of social transformation/revolution that the founding fathers had expected to achieve through the Constitution.

Second Phase: What was the subject matter/focus of Public Interest Litigation (PIL)?

The second phase of PIL begins in the 1990s. Since then, the filing of PIL cases became more institutionalized as a result several specialized NGOs and lawyers started bringing matters of public interest to the courts on a much regular basis. The width of issues raised in PIL also expanded tremendously—from the protection of the environment to corruption-free administration, right to education, sexual harassment at the workplace, relocation of industries, rule of law, good governance and the general accountability of the Government. It is to be noted that in this phase, the petitioners sought relief not only against the action/nonaction of the executive but also against private individuals, concerning policy matters and regarding something that would fall within the domain of the legislature. The response of the judiciary during the second phase, was by and large, much bolder and unconventional than the first phase. For instance, the courts did not hesitate to come up with detailed guidelines where there were legislative gaps. The courts enforced fundamental rights against private individuals and granted relief to the petitioner without going into the question of whether the violator of the fundamental right was the state. The courts also took non-compliance with its orders more seriously and in some cases, went to the extent of monitoring government investigative agencies and/or punishing civil servants for contempt of failing to abide by their directions. The second phase was also the period when the misuse of PIL not only began but also reached a disturbing level, which occasionally compelled the courts to impose fines on plaintiffs for misusing public interest litigation for private purposes. The courts moved to protect the interests of the middle class rather than the poor populace.

Third Phase: Against whom the relief was sought in PIL?

It is the current phase, which began with the 21st century, in which anyone could file PIL for almost anything against Central or a state government, local or any other authorities within Indian territory or under governmental control. It seems that there is a further expansion of issues that could be raised as PIL, e.g. calling back the Indian cricket team from the Australian tour and preventing an alleged marriage of an actress with trees for astrological reasons.

Fourth Phase: How did judiciary respond to PIL cases?

From the judiciary’s point of view, one could argue that it is time for judicial introspection and for reviewing what courts tried to achieve through PIL. As compared to the second phase, the judiciary has seemingly shown more restraint in issuing directions to the government. Although the judiciary is unlikely to roll back the expansive scope of public interest litigation, it is possible that it might make more measured interventions in the future.

Another aspect of the judicial response is being seen in the third phase such as the continuation of its approval of the government’s policies of liberalization in Delhi Science Forum, the judiciary has shown general support to disinvestment and development policies of the government. At this juncture, it is disturbing for students of the PIL project in India that this judicial attitude might be at the cost of the sympathetic response that the rights and interests of impoverished and vulnerable sections of society such as slum dwellers and people displaced by the construction of dams received in the first phase. Moreover, “it seems that the judicial attitude towards PIL in these three phases is a response, at least in part, to how it perceived to be the issue(s) in vogue (popularity or fashion)”.

In a nutshell, if rights of prisoners, pavement dwellers, child/bonded labourers, and women were in focus in the first phase, issues such as environment, AIDS, corruption, and good governance were at the forefront in the second phase, and development and free-market considerations might dominate the third phase. So, the way the courts have reacted to PIL in India is merely a reflection of what people expected from the judiciary at any given point of time.


6 Reasons Responsible for the Increase or Growth of PIL in India

1. The feature of the Indian Constitution

India has a written Constitution which through Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) provides a framework for regulating relations between the state and its citizens and between citizens inter-se. This provides an opportunity to any citizen to file a PIL whenever and wherever the public interest is being compromised.

2. Progressive Social Legislations for Weaker Sections

There have been more progressive social legislations in independent India relating to bonded labour, minimum wages, land ceiling, environmental protection, etc. This has made it easier for the courts on behalf of a PIL filed either in the Supreme Court or a High Court to haul up the executive when it is not performing its duties in ensuring the rights of the poor as per the law of the land.

3. Judicial Activism & the Liberal Interpretation of Locus Standi

The liberal interpretation of locus standi where any person can file a PIL to the court on behalf of those who are economically, socially and physically unable to come before it has helped. Judges themselves have in some cases initiated suo moto (judicial activism) action based on newspaper articles or letters received.

4. Social & Economic Rights Enforceable through Art. 21—Right to Life

Although social and economic rights given in the Indian Constitution under Part IV are not legally enforceable, courts have creatively read these into fundamental rights thereby making them judicially enforceable. For instance, the “right to life” in Article 21 has been expanded to include the right to free legal aid, right to live with dignity, right to education, right to work, freedom from torture, bar fetters and handcuffing in prisons, etc. This is another provision responsible for the increase of PIL in India.

5. Judicial Innovations to Help the Poor and Marginalised

Judicial innovations to help the poor and marginalised is another cause for filing more PIL. For instance, in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case, the Supreme Court put the burden of proof on the respondent stating it would treat every case of forced labour as a case of bonded labour unless proven otherwise by the employer. Similarly, in the Asiad Workers judgment case, Justice P.N. Bhagwati held that anyone getting less than the minimum wage can approach the Supreme Court directly without going through the labour commissioner and lower courts.

6. Appointment of Facts Collection Commission by Courts for PIL Filer

In PIL cases where the petitioner is not in a position to provide all the necessary evidence, either because it is voluminous or because the parties are weak socially or economically, courts have appointed commissions to collect information on facts and present it before the bench. It makes easy and convenient for filing a PIL without a valid evidence to prove it.


  • Public Interest Litigation has produced astonishing results that were unthinkable three decades ago.
  • Degraded bonded labourers, 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.
  • Besides, the frivolous PILs with vested interests must be discouraged to keep their real objectives in practice and workload manageable.

Copyright © Writer (Dr. Md. Usmangani Ansari)

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