Public Interest Litigation in India: PIL Meaning, History…

Public Interest Litigation in India: The public interest litigation is the full form of PIL. It is a means to seek justice in the court of law – the Supreme Court of India and High Courts of Indian states, in the interest of the general public, mainly the socially and economically poor who can’t do the same on their own. Here in this article  we have discussed in detail about the meaning and definition of PIL, concept of PIL, history of PIL in USA, UK, and India, and who is pioneer of PIL in India and who is mother of PIL along with the Supreme Court’s judgments below.

Table of Contents


PIL Meaning and Definition

Public interest litigation is not defined in any statute or any act, but Judges have interpreted the PIL to consider the intent of the public at large. Let us see its meaning and definition below.

PIL Meaning

As per Black’s Law Dictionary– Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest (general interest) in which the public or class of the community have monetary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.

Public interest litigation (PIL) is intended to vindicate  and promote public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in an economically or socially disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and unredressed. 

On the contrary PIL is filed in the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation. However, PIL is brought before the court by an individual or group of people who don’t have their personal interest in the same but for the justice of the poor or group of poor people who are devoid of their social, political or economic rights.

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Definition of PIL

“A lawsuit, filed in a court of law, Supreme Court and High Court, as a writ or otherwise, used as a strategy to combat the atrocities prevailing in society and deliver quick social justice with the help of law, for the protection of public interest is called Public Interest Litigation (PIL)”. __ Dr. Md. Usmangani Ansari

PIL may be defined as,

“Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a legal mechanism that allows individuals or groups to initiate legal action in the public interest, seeking justice and remedy for societal issues.” __ Dr. Md. Usmangani Ansari

Concept of PIL

Justice P. N. Bhagwati in S. P. Gupta vs. Union of India in 1981 gave and expressed the concept of PIL. He said that if 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 and such person or determinate class of persons by reasons of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, then any member of public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in case any breach of fundamental rights of such persons or determinate class of persons, the Supreme Court under Article 32 seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or legal injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons.

The emergence of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has motivated the judicial system to extend its protection to new social, public, and group interests as follows:

  • PIL is the power given by courts to the public through judicial activism. But the person filing the public interest litigation must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the petition is being filed for public interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body.
  • The court, High Court and Supreme Court in India, can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo motu, or cases can commence on the petition of any public-spirited individual.

History of PIL

We have discussed the history of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which first originated in the USA, UK, and India. 


The term ‘Public Interest Litigation’ originated in the United States of America (USA) in the mid 1980s. The phrase ‘public law litigation’ was first prominently used by American academician, Abram Chayes, to describe the practice of lawyers or public-spirited individuals who seek to precipitate social change through court-ordered decrees that reform legal rules, enforce existing laws and articulate public norms. Since the nineteenth century, various movements in that country had contributed to public interest law, which was part of the legal aid movement.

PIL in India has been a part of constitutional litigation and not civil litigation. Therefore, to appreciate the evolution of Public Interest Litigation in India, it is desirable and very important to have a basic understanding of the constitutional framework and the Indian judiciary.

PIL in United Kingdom (UK)

The use of Public Interest Litigation in the United Kingdom (England) has been comparably limited. The limited development in PIL has occurred by broadening the ‘rules of standing’. In Re. Reed, Bowen, and Co. case (1887), to facilitate vindication of public interest, the English judiciary prescribed ‘broad rules of standing’. Under the ‘traditional rule of standing’, judicial redress was only available to a ‘person aggrieved’ i.e. the person who has suffered a legal grievance, a man or woman against whom a decision has been pronounced which has wrongfully deprived him/her of something or wrongfully refused him/her something or wrongfully affected his/her title to something. Although, the traditional rule no longer governs standing in the English Courts.

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PIL in India

There is a disillusionment with the formal legal system of India where it is no longer demanded by law to do justice, if justice perchance (or) possibly is done, we believe ourselves to be fortunate. In such a passive legal system of the country, one of the best things that have happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s is the process of social reform through an active legal initiative known as “Public Interest Litigation or Social Action Litigation”. In Indian law, public interest litigation i.e. PIL means litigation for the protection of the public interest to advance social justice. 

The words ‘Public Interest’ means “the common wellbeing also public welfare” and the word ‘Litigation‘ means “a legal action including all proceedings therein, initiated in a court of law to enforce a right or seek a remedy”.

Who is pioneer of PIL in India?

Justice P. N. Bhagwati - Pioneer of PIL

Pioneer of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) — Justice P.N. Bhagwati


Pranab Mukherjee, President of India on Dec. 12, 2012 had described “Justice P.N. Bhagwati as a pioneer of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the country and a promoter of the right to legal aid and emissary of Lok Adalats”.


Mr. Pranab Mukherjee who was given a copy of Justice Bhagwati’s memoir ‘My Tryst with Justice’, by the present Chief Justice of India, Altamas Kabir at a function held in Rashtrapati Bhavan here said, Mr. Justice P.N. Bhagwati converted the courtroom into a site of people’s struggle in humanizing law.

Mr. Justice Bhagwati manifests how a judge can be instrumental in adopting the cause of justice to the millions of deprived Indians who are standing in the waiting room of history to become the subjects of justice, Mr. Mukherjee said. The President said the Justice P.N. Bhagwati’s memoir(book) will be a guiding light and an inspiration for not just law students, legal practitioners, and judges but also every common person concerned about social justice in our country.

The book would be an honored possession for every Indian who wants to make a difference to the world and who aspires for a more just world, he added.

Though India had to wait till 1986 when the then 17th Chief Justice of India Prafullachandra Natwarlal (P.N.) Bhagwati (July 1985 – Dec. 1986) introduced public interest litigation (PIL) to the Indian judicial system. However, the seed of the concept of Public Interest Litigation was initially shown in India by Krishna Iyer, J. In 1976 (without assigning the terminology) in Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v/s Abdul Thai (AIR 1976 SC 1455; 1976 (3) SCC 832), he while disposing of an industrial dispute regarding the bonus payment, has observed (Para 7 of AIR):

Our adjectival branch of jurisprudence, by and large, deals not with sophisticated litigants but the rural poor, the urban lay and the weaker societal segments for whom the law will be an added terror if technical misdescriptions and deficiencies in drafting pleadings and setting out the cause-title create a secret weapon to non-suit a part. Where foul play is absent and fairness is not faulted, latitude is a grace of processional justice… Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latitudinarianism permits taking liberties with individualisation of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker. Less litigation, consistent with a fair process, is the aim of adjective law.”

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Who is mother of PIL in India?

Mother of PIL— Pushpa Kapila Hingorani      

  • She became the first woman barrister/lawyer to get a portrait in the Supreme Court Library.
  • She was the first Indian woman to graduate from Cardiff Law School in the U.K.
  • She was born in Nairobi in 1927 and died on Dec. 31, 2013, in India.

The month of January 1979 will remain a memorable month in Indian legal history. It was the dates 8 & 9 January 1979 when the PIL as a revolution started with The Indian Express (Delhi edition) publication of two articles by K.F. Rustamji, then Member of the National Police Commission. These articles were based on his Tour Note No. 10 in which he gave 19 instances of prisoners along with Hussainara Khatoon, some of whom had been in jail awaiting trial for periods …

A Supreme Court lawyer, Nirmal Hingorani, read Rustamji’s second article published on January 9, 1979. He and the author, Kapila Hingorani, moved the Supreme Court on Jan. 11, 1979 through a habeas corpus petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, a move that neither Rustamji nor The Indian Express expected. However, neither Nirmal Hingorani nor the author had a power of attorney to approach the Court, nor were they the close relatives or ‘next of kin’ of the undertrials. Though Supreme Court rules do not permit the filing of a habeas corpus petition based on newspaper reports, the author, as a citizen of the country and officer of the Court, filed the petition on January 11, 1979, prepared by her lawyer husband Nirmal Hingorani, on behalf of 19 undertrial prisoners mentioned in the articles.

The Supreme Court of India, after hearing arguments, passed historic orders revolutionizing the criminal justice system of the country. While all the above-named undertrial prisoners were released by its six Orders of 12, 19, 26 February and 9 March, 19 April and 4 May 1979 went on to read a right to a speedy trial as being implicit in the right to life and personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.

 Thus, as a result of the ‘Hussainara Khatoon Vs Home Secretary, Bihar’ case, the Supreme Court bench led by Justice P.N. Bhagwati went on to release, through interim orders, over 40,000 undertrial prisoners out of the estimated 120,000 from various jails nationwide within four months of filing of the first petition.

PK Hingorani says,“The success of the Hussainara Khatoon case was so widespread that the Supreme Court in the 1980s opened a new section in the Registry which was devoted to PILs. Officers used to sift through the incessant bombardment of letters or petitions from citizens every day and choose the ones which should be brought to the court’s attention.” 

Pushpa Kapila Hingorani was born at the Kenyan Capital Nairobi in an Arya Samaj family. She also pointed out that the Supreme Court held in the Hussainara Khatoon case that speedy trial and legal aid to the poor are the two essentials of a PIL. However, today, as a woman who gave birth to PIL, I get hurt when people misuse it or judges do not understand the public problem laid before them.

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She has given almost 30 years for nearly 100 PILs, free of cost, including the Bhagalpur Blinding case of 1981 and Rudul Sah case of 1983. Her most favorite among the PILs she did was one in which the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) agreed to pay Rs 1,000 to lepers (persons affected with leprosy) to build their jhuggies.

A new era of the PIL movement was indicated by Justice P.N. Bhagawati in the case of S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India.

In S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India case, it was pointed out that “any member of the public or social action group acting bonafide” can use the Writ Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 32 or the High Courts under article 226 seeking redressal against violation of legal or constitutional rights of persons who due to social or economic or any other disability cannot approach the Court.

  • Because of this judgment, PIL became a potent weapon for the enforcement of “public duties” where executive action or misdeed resulted in public injury. Consequently, any citizen of India or any consumer groups or social action groups can now approach the apex court (High Court or the Supreme Court) of the country seeking legal remedies in all cases where the interests of the general public or a section of the public are at stake.
  • Justice PN Bhagwati did many things to ensure that the concept of PILs was enunciated. And for this reason, he did not insist on the observance of procedural technicalities and even treated ordinary letters from public-minded individuals as writ petitions.

In other cases, the Supreme Court of India in Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay & Ors. vs. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors (2004) pointed out, “In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice.” Thus, in the eye of the judgements of the Supreme Court a private interest case can also be treated as a public interest case.

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FAQs on Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India

Q. What is the meaning of PIL?

Ans. PIL full form is Public Interest Litigation. PIL refers to the law action or use of legislation to encourage or increase the question of public concern for equality and human rights.

Q. What is PIL full form in Hindi?

Ans. PIL full form in Hindi is जनहित याचिका यानी पब्लिक इंट्रेस्ट लिटिगेशन (PIL).

Q. What is the use of PIL?

Ans. The main use of filing a PIL is to provide access to the courts on behalf of the common people so that they can get opportunities to obtain the legal remedy. PIL is an effective social changing instrument that is used for maintaining the rule of law which will in return control and balance the gravity between law and justice.

Q. Who introduced PIL in India?

Ans. Nirmal Hingorani and Kapila Hingorani, then the Supreme Court lawyers, introduced the PIL as a writ petition in India. PIL is also a product of the judicial activism role of the Supreme Court. It was introduced in the early 1980s. Justice P N Bhagwati is the pioneer of the concept of PIL in India. PIL had started in India towards the end of the 1970s and came into full bloom in the 1980s.

Q. Which was the first public interest litigation in India?
Ans. The reported first case of PIL was ‘Hussainara Khatoon Vs. State of Bihar’ in 1979. 

Q. Who is father of PIL in India?

Ans. Justice P N Bhagwati is known as the father of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India. He worked as the Chief Justice of India from July 12, 1985 to December 20, 1986.

Q. Which country started PIL?

Ans. The Public Interest Litigation (PIL) as a concept originated and developed in the United States of America (USA) in the 1960s. The PIL was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups or interests in the USA.

Q. Who is the mother of PIL in India?

Ans. Pushpa Kapila Hingorani is known as the mother of public interest litigations in India. Kapila Hingorani and her husband Nirmal Hingorani represented the undertrial prisoners in Bihar.

Q. What is PIL called in the USA?

Ans. Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is called  “public interest law” in the USA.  This term was widely adopted in the USA during and after the social turmoil of the 1960s. The term built on a tradition exemplified by Louis Brandeis, who before becoming a  US Supreme Court justice used it for the interests of the general public into his legal practice.

Q. Who filed the first PIL in India?

Ans. The 1979 Hussainara Khatoon vs State of Bihar case related to the plight of undertrial poor workers in jails was the first PIL petition filed by then the Supreme Court Lawyer Pushpa Kapila Hingorani. However, Justice Krishna Iyer had said in the 1976 Mumbai Kamgar case, “Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs M/s Abdulbhai Faizullabhai and others (1976 (3) SCC 832)).

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