The Story of the PIL

PILs in India have come a long way from the first habeas corpus petition that sought the release of all undertrial prisoners in Bihar.

In 1979, Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer, was ‘sickened’ after reading a newspaper report in the Indian Express. The report was about 18 undertrial prisoners. They were charged with various crimes, but their trials had been pending for long periods of time. So, none of them had been convicted and held guilty of a crime. However, they had already been in jail for a period longer than what their maximum punishment would have been if they were found guilty.

Although Hingorani did not have a personal stake in the issue, she wanted to bring this to the judiciary’s attention. Usually, habeas corpus petitions are filed to challenge the illegal detention of an individual. Instead, Hingorani filed a habeas corpus petition at the Supreme Court to secure the release of all such undertrial prisoners in Bihar. Justice P.N. Bhagwati accepted the petition.

Bhagwati J immediately ordered the release of 70 such undertrial prisoners who had suffered from this systemic oversight in Bihar. The case eventually led to the Court issuing guidelines to release almost 40,000 undertrial prisoners throughout India. It also stressed the importance of the right to free legal aid.

This case is the first reported instance of ‘public interest litigation’ (PIL). Usually, petitioners can approach the Court for a violation of their own fundamental rights. After the Emergency, the Court began to relax various procedural rules. As part of that relaxation, the Court started treating letters from the public as petitions. The ‘public interest litigation’ (PIL) emerged in this context. In 1976, the Court allowed a trade union to represent a larger group of workers in a dispute. In 1979, Hingorani’s petition was the first time the Court allowed petitioners to bring cases on behalf of other groups of people, in the ‘public interest’.

In the following decades, the number of PILs have only increased. From the M.C. Mehta cases on the environment to Vishakha, which established the law on sexual harassment at the workplace, PILs have become a mainstay at the Supreme Court. The effectiveness of PILs is a matter of scholarly debate. However, any such evaluation of the Court’s institutional performance as an institution must engage empirically with PILs.

We look at the trend in the number and types of PILs filed at the Court between 1985 and 2020 here.