After Supreme Court grills CPIL, it's time to ask whether PILs are truly in 'public interest'

The observations of a bench of the Supreme Court, questioning an organisation that has filed a large number of public interest litigations, have brought into focus the nature of such pleas. The remarks have raised the issue of whether or not PILs indeed serve their stated purpose.

A bench headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur, while saying that it should be satisfied that the petitions are genuine, said that the system 'cannot be taken for a ride.' This was in the context of a PIL filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), which is headed by lawyer Prashant Bhushan. The plea challenged allocation of 4G spectrum to Reliance Industries Limited's Jio.

After Supreme Court grills CPIL, its time to ask whether PILs are truly in public interest

Cartoon courtesy @NeelabhToons

This is not the first time in recent times that the top court has raised a questioned the credentials of persons and organisations claiming to represent public interest. In 2010, a bench of Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Mukundakam Sharma that this legal provision was being 'blatantly abused by filing some petitions with oblique motives'.

The judges went on to say, "The court should ensure that there is no personal gain, private motive... behind filing the public interest litigation. The court should also ensure that the petitions filed by busybodies for extraneous and ulterior motives must be discouraged by imposing exemplary costs or by adopting similar novel methods to curb frivolous petitions and petitions filed for extraneous considerations.

Public interest litigations were originally intended as a measure to protect fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly for the poor and marginalised sections of society. This measure came to used by the judiciary after the Emergency was lifted, particularly due to efforts by Justice PN Bhagwati and Justice VR Krishna Iyer. During the Emergency, the Supreme Court had supported the imposition, and approved the suspension of fundamental rights in that period. Recently, the court admitted that the judgment violated the fundamental rights of a large number of people, as reported by DNA.

Later, public interest litigations were used to address a large number of important issues, including environmental pollution, prisoners' rights and even financial misappropriation. However, not all petitions have been of the same nature. In recent times, public interest litigations have also been filed to 'declare' Anna Hazare's anti-corruption agitation as unconstitutional, to demand bans on films even before their release, and even to make dahi handi a 'national sport.' In December last year, the Supreme Court has dismissed a public interest litigation questioning Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's citizenship, terming it as 'frivolous', as reported by The Indian Express.

In the recent past, the judiciary has even imposed heavy costs on petitions which have not been seen to have had public interest litigation in mind. In 2014, the Bombay High Court imposed a cost of Rs 5 lakh on a petitioner who had made allegations against a cooperative bank. The petitioner, however, did not reveal that his brother owed the bank more than Rs 1 crore, as per a report in The Times of India.

In the ongoing legal proceedings filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court, after making oral observations questioning the nature of the petition, has reserved its verdict.

Disclosure: Firstpost is part of Network18 Media & Investment Limited which is owned by Reliance Industries Limited

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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2016 16:57:53 IST

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