Public interest litigation is essentially a cooperative or collaborative effort-SC

Public interest litigation, as we conceive it, is essentially a cooperative or collaborative effort

Court never assumed the legislative power of the State


In last 63 years, Parliament and State Legislatures have enacted several laws for achieving the goals set out in the preamble but their implementation has been extremely inadequate and tardy and benefit of welfare measures enshrined in those legislations has not reached millions of poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged sections of the society and the efforts to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots have not yield the desired result. The most unfortunate part of the scenario is that whenever one of the three constituents of the State i.e., judiciary, has issued directions for ensuring that the right to equality, life and liberty no longer remains illusory for those who suffer from the handicaps of poverty, illiteracy and ignorance and directions are given for implementation of the laws enacted by the legislature for the benefit of the have-nots, a theoretical debate is started by raising the bogey of judicial activism or judicial overreach and the orders issued for benefit of the weaker sections of the society are invariably subjected to challenge in the higher Courts. In large number of cases, the sole object of this litigative exercise is to tire out those who genuinely espouse the cause of the weak and poor.

Supreme Court  has time and again emphasized the importance of the petitions filed pro bono publico for protection of the rights of less fortunate and vulnerable sections of the society.

In People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India (1982) 3 SCC 235, this Court said:

“We wish to point out with all the emphasis at our command that public interest litigation which is a strategic arm of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief. Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and unredressed. That would be destructive of the rule of law which forms one of the essential elements of public interest in any democratic form of Government. The rule of law does not mean that the protection of the law must be available only to a fortunate few or that the law should be allowed to be prostituted by the vested interests for protecting and upholding the status quo under the guise of enforcement of their civil and political rights. The poor too have civil and political rights and the rule of law is meant for them also, though today it exists only on paper and not in reality. If the sugar barons and the alcohol kings have the fundamental right to carry on their business and to fatten their purses by exploiting the consuming public, have the chamars belonging to the lowest strata of society no fundamental right to earn an honest living through their sweat and toil? The former can approach the courts with a formidable army of distinguished lawyers paid in four or five figures per day and if their right to exploit is upheld against the Government under the label of fundamental right, the courts are praised for their boldness and courage and their independence and fearlessness are applauded and acclaimed. But, if the fundamental right of the poor and helpless victims of injustice is sought to be enforced by public interest litigation, the so-
called champions of human rights frown upon it as waste of time of the highest court in the land, which, according to them, should not engage itself in such small and trifling matters. Moreover, these self-styled human rights activists forget that civil and political rights, priceless and invaluable as they are for freedom and democracy, simply do not exist for the vast masses of our people. Large numbers of men, women and children who constitute the bulk of our population are today living a sub- human existence in conditions of abject poverty; utter grinding poverty has broken their back and sapped their moral fibre. They have no faith in the existing social and economic system. Public interest litigation, as we conceive it, is essentially a cooperative or collaborative effort on the part of the petitioner, the State or public authority and the court to secure observance of the constitutional or legal rights, benefits and privileges conferred upon the vulnerable sections of the community and to reach social justice to them. The State or public authority against whom public interest litigation is brought should be as much interested in ensuring basic human rights, constitutional as well as legal, to those who are in a socially and economically disadvantaged position, as the petitioner who brings the public interest litigation before the court. The State or public authority which is arrayed as a respondent in public interest litigation should, in fact, welcome it, as it would give it an opportunity to right a wrong or to redress an injustice done to the poor and weaker sections of the community whose welfare is and must be the prime concern of the State or the public authority. There is a misconception in the minds of some lawyers, journalists and men in public life that public interest litigation is unnecessarily cluttering up the files of the court and adding to the already staggering arrears of cases which are pending for long years and it should not therefore be encouraged by the court. This is, to our mind, a totally perverse view smacking of elitist and status quoist approach. Those who are decrying public interest litigation do not seem to realise that courts are not meant only for the rich and the well-to-do, for the landlord and the gentry, for the business magnate and the industrial tycoon, but they exist also for the poor and the down-trodden, the have-nots and the handicapped and the half-hungry millions of our countrymen. So far the courts have been used only for the purpose of vindicating the rights of the wealthy and the affluent. It is only these privileged classes which have been able to approach the courts for protecting their vested interests. It is only the moneyed who have so far had the golden key to unlock the doors of justice. ………No State has a right to tell its citizens that because a large number of cases of the rich and the well-to-do are pending in our courts, we will not help the poor to come to the courts for seeking justice until the staggering load of cases of people who can afford, is disposed of. The time has now come when the courts must become the courts for the poor and struggling masses of this country. They must shed their character as upholders of the established order and the status quo. They must be sensitised to the need of doing justice to the large masses of people to whom justice has been denied by a cruel and heartless society for generations. The realisation must come to them that social justice is the signature tune of our Constitution and it is their solemn duty under the Constitution to enforce the basic human rights of the poor and vulnerable sections of the community and actively help in the realisation of the constitutional goals.”

(emphasis supplied)

 In State of Uttaranchal v. Balwant Singh Chaufal (2010) 3 SCC 402), this Court examined various facets of public interest litigation in the backdrop of criticism from within and outside the system. Dalveer Bhandari, J. made lucid analysis of the concept and development of public interest litigation in the following three phases:

“Phase I.–It deals with cases of this Court where directions and orders were passed primarily to protect fundamental rights under Article 21 of the marginalised groups and sections of the society who because of extreme poverty, illiteracy and ignorance cannot approach this Court or the High Courts.

Phase II.–It deals with the cases relating to protection, preservation of ecology, environment, forests, marine life, wildlife, mountains, rivers, historical monuments, etc. etc.  Phase III.–It deals with the directions issued by the Courts in maintaining the probity, transparency and integrity in governance.”

While dealing with the first phase of development, the Court referred to large number of precedents and recorded its conclusion in the following words:

“We would not like to overburden the judgment by multiplying these cases, but a brief resume of these cases demonstrates that in order to preserve and protect the fundamental rights of marginalised, deprived and poor sections of the society, the courts relaxed the traditional rule of locus standi and broadened the definition of aggrieved persons and gave directions and orders. We would like to term cases of this period where the Court relaxed the rule of locus standi as the first phase of the public interest litigation. The Supreme Court and the High Courts earned great respect and acquired great credibility in the eyes of public because of their innovative efforts to protect and preserve the fundamental rights of people belonging to the poor and marginalised sections of the society.”

There have been instances in which this Court has exercised its power under Article 32 read with Article 142 and issued guidelines and directions to fill the vacuum. Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997) 6 SCC 241, Vineet Narain v. Union of India (1998) 1 SCC 226 and Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms (2002) 5 SCC 294 are illuminating examples of the exercise of this Court’s power under Article 32 for ensuring justice to the common man and effective exercise of fundamental rights by the citizens. In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (supra), the Court entertained the petition filed by certain social activists and NGOs for effective protection of fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21. In paragraph 11 of the judgment, the Court made a note of its obligation under Article 32 of the Constitution in the following words:

“11. The obligation of this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution for the enforcement of these fundamental rights in the absence of legislation must be viewed along with the role of judiciary envisaged in the Beijing Statement of Principles of the Independence of the Judiciary in the LAWASIA region. These principles were accepted by the Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific at Beijing in 1995 as those representing the minimum standards necessary to be observed in order to maintain the independence and effective functioning of the judiciary. The objectives of the judiciary mentioned in the Beijing Statement are:

“Objectives of the Judiciary:

10. The objectives and functions of the Judiciary include the following:

(a) to ensure that all persons are able to live securely under the rule of law;
(b) to promote, within the proper limits of the judicial function, the observance and the attainment of human rights; and
(c) to administer the law impartially among persons and between persons and the State.”
22. In Vineet Narain v. Union of India (supra), the Court observed:

“The powers conferred on this Court by the Constitution are ample to remedy this defect and to ensure enforcement of the concept of equality.

There are ample powers conferred by Article 32 read with Article 142 to make orders which have the effect of law by virtue of Article 141 and there is mandate to all authorities to act in aid of the orders of this Court as provided in Article 144 of the Constitution. In a catena of decisions of this Court, this power has been recognised and exercised, if need be, by issuing necessary directions to fill the vacuum till such time the legislature steps in to cover the gap or the executive discharges its role. ”

(emphasis supplied)

In Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms (supra), this Court was called upon to examine the correctness of the directions given by the Division Bench of Delhi High Court for implementation of the recommendations made by the Law Commission in its 170th Report. While modifying the directions given by the High Court, the Court observed:

“45. Finally, in our view this Court would have ample power to direct the Commission to fill the void, in the absence of suitable legislation covering the field and the voters are required to be well informed and educated about contesting candidates so that they can elect a proper candidate by their own assessment. It is the duty of the executive to fill the vacuum by executive orders because its field is coterminous with that of the legislature, and where there is inaction by the executive, for whatever reason, the judiciary must step in, in exercise of its constitutional obligations to provide a solution till such time the legislature acts to perform its role by enacting proper legislation to cover the field. The adverse impact of lack of probity in public life leading to a high degree of corruption is manifold. Therefore, if the candidate is directed to declare his/her spouse’s and dependants’ assets –immovable, movable and valuable articles
— it would have its own effect. This Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan dealt with the incident of sexual harassment of a woman at work place which resulted in violation of fundamental right of gender equality and the right to life and liberty and laid down that in the absence of legislation, it must be viewed along with the role of the judiciary envisaged in the Beijing Statement of Principles of Independence of Judiciary in the LAWASIA region. The decision has laid down the guidelines and prescribed the norms to be strictly observed in all work places until suitable legislation is enacted to occupy the field. In the present case also, there is no legislation or rules providing for giving necessary information to the voters. As stated earlier, this case was relied upon in Vineet Narain case where the Court has issued necessary guidelines to CBI and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as there was no legislation covering the said field to ensure proper implementation of the rule of law.”

 In view of the principles laid down in the aforesaid judgments, we do not have any slightest hesitation to reject the argument that  Court has assumed the legislative power of the State.

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