The Constitution of India has vested the Judiciary with certain powers that its counterparts in other countries do not possess. Since all powers and functions emanate from the Constitution, the framers of the Constitution cautiously armed the Judiciary with powers to check the abuse of exercise of these powers and functions. Jurists in India have long been harping upon the fact that the Judiciary is the watchdog of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of India and the High Courts of States have been empowered to interfere with State actions either by
a) striking them down in cases of abuse of powers or
b) directing the State to do something which it should have done or
c) restraining it from doing something which it cannot do under the Constitutional framework.
Jurisprudentially, only persons whose rights are infringed can seek remedy before the Courts i.e. the person approaching the Court should have ‘locus standi’ to do so. But in the second half of the 20th century, the Courts realized that they cannot expect only persons directly affected by illegal State actions to knock at their doors. They recognised the palpable danger that the poor and downtrodden could not fight the mighty ‘State power’ before the Courts. Therefore, courts rose to the occasion and paved way for Public Interest Litigations (PILs). PILs enable public-spirited people to approach them challenging the legal validity of State actions.
In the last five decades, the Courts have been activistic in entertaining several PILs challenging State actions. Public-spirited activists who could not work out remedies with the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats started approaching Courts. Several social and political transformations have taken place in India since then.
During my law school days, based on my legal and social researches, I sent representations to the authorities concerned whenever I thought there was some legal wrong in certain State actions. As I realized that my strategy did not work, I started meeting bureaucrats and ministers directly in matters concerning important legal issues, but in vain. By the time I enrolled as an advocate at the bar, I was prepared to approach the Court against the corrupt bureaucracy and polity.
With a string of legal issues in hand, I started observing the PIL proceedings in the High Court of Madras. After observing them for several months, I realized that several PILs were being dismissed or otherwise closed at the stage of admission itself without examining whether they had any merits in them. The Court was hawkish and dismissed PILs with questions and remarks like: ‘Who are you to approach the Court?’, ‘Have you come here for publicity?’, ‘What is your age?’, ‘You are an advocate, you must be trying to popularize yourself by filing this PIL’, ‘You probably have political motives.’
One of the glaring examples was a PIL proceeding I witnessed in 2014. A villager from Puducherry alleged corruption in the implementation of Puducherry Old Age, Widow and Destitute pension rules, 2012 and sought an independent CBI enquiry on the irregularities. When the case was called, the first remark that the Court put forth was: ‘You probably have political motives.’
The Petitioner's Counsel rushed to state that he was not politically inclined and submitted that he had legal merits in his case. He put forth information he had collected from the Government of Puducherry under the Right to Information Act. The Counsel moved on to state that as a poor villager the Petitioner could gather such irregularities with information from 3 villages and that more irregularities could be unearthed by a CBI enquiry. His point was a scam worth several crores of rupees would come to light. However, the petition was closed in a few seconds with a direction to the Government of Puducherry to examine the list of beneficiaries and to remove ineligible beneficiaries from it. All the painstaking efforts of the poor villager to unearth one of the biggest corruption scandals came to a grounding halt.
It's true that certain people misuse PIL to seek public and media attention. But the PIL guideline framed by the High Court of Madras is strong enough to deter misuse of PILs. According to the guideline, a PIL can be taken on file only if the Petitioner is ready to pay the cost if it is found that the PIL was filed for personal motives. It also requires declaration of the Petitioner’s income and his PAN in his affidavit. After all this process, the Court can dismiss the Petition and impose cost if it is found that no legal case had been made out.
At the stage of admission, the Court should aim to examine the presence of any one or more of these factors: a) whether a prima facie (on the face of the Petition) case had been made out, b) whether a likelihood of legal wrong is pointed out, c) whether a substantial question of law is raised. Only, in the absence of any of the above factors should a petition be deemd frivolous, and the Court should determine the motive behind filing it.
While I write this article, I also acknowledge the fact that last year, PILs on important matters concerning appointment of Government Counsels and registration of unapproved plots were admitted by the High Court of Madras. But those are exceptional cases.
The Court is the final resort to redress grievances. Hasty dismissals by the judiciary will put an end to the issue that is raised without any remedy at all, particularly with PILs that have an effect on the masses. Is that in the interest of public? Should the age of the Petitioner and his avocation be a factor at all to determine whether to entertain his PIL? With the change in guard in the Madras High Court, only time has to say if there will be change in the Court’s approach in dealing with PILs.