Judicial Activism

Judicial Activism / Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

Both these terms are often used in the discussions about judiciary in recent times. Many people think that these two things have revolutionised the functioning of judiciary and made it more people-friendly.

The chief instrument through which judicial activism has flourished in India is Public Interest Litigation (PIL) or Social Action Litigation (SAL).

What Is PIL OR SAL? How And When Did It Emerge?

In normal course of law, an individual can approach the courts only if he/she has been personally aggrieved. That is to say, a person whose rights have been violated, or who is involved in a dispute, could move the court of law.

This concept underwent a change around 1979. In 1979, the Court set the trend when it decided to hear a case where the case was filed not by the aggrieved persons but by others on their behalf. As this case involved a consideration of an issue of public interest, it and such other cases came to be known as public interest litigations.

Around the same time, the Supreme Court also took up the case about rights of prisoners. This opened the gates for large number of cases where public spirited citizens and voluntary organisations sought judicial intervention for protection of existing rights, betterment of life conditions of the poor, protection of the environment, and many other issues in the interest of the public.

PIL has become the most important vehicle of judicial activism.

Judiciary, which is an institution that traditionally confined to responding to cases brought before it, began considering many cases merely on the basis of newspaper reports and postal complaints received by the court. Therefore, the term judicial activism became the more popular description of the role of the judiciary.

  • Through the PIL, the court has expanded the idea of rights. Clean air, unpolluted water, decent living etc. are rights for the entire society. Therefore, it was felt by the courts that individuals as parts of the society must have the right to seek justice wherever such rights were violated.
  • Secondly, through PIL and judicial activism of the post-1980 period, the judiciary has also shown readiness to take into consideration rights of those sections who cannot easily approach the courts. For this purpose, the judiciary allowed public spirited citizens, social organisations and lawyers to file petitions on behalf of the needy and the deprived.

Judicial activism has had manifold impact on the political system. It has democratised the judicial system by giving not just to individuals but also groups access to the courts. It has forced executive accountability. It has also made an attempt to make the electoral system much more free and fair. The court asked candidates contesting elections to file affidavits indicating their assets and income along with educational qualifications so that the people could elect their representatives based on accurate knowledge.

Negatives Of PIL / Judicial Activism

There is however a negative side to the large number of PILs and the idea of a pro-active judiciary.

  • First, it has overburdened the courts.
  • Second, judicial activism has blurred the line of distinction between the executive and legislature on the one hand and the judiciary on the other. The court has been involved in resolving questions which belong to the executive. Thus, for instance, reducing air or sound pollution or investigating cases of corruption or bringing about electoral reform is not exactly the duty of the Judiciary. These are matters to be handled by the administration under the supervision of the legislatures. Therefore, some people feel that judicial activism has made the balance among the three organs of government very delicate. Democratic government is based on each organ of government respecting the powers and jurisdiction of the others. Judicial activism may be creating strains on this democratic principle.

Some Early PILs

  • In 1979, newspapers published reports about ‘under trials’. There were many prisoners in Bihar who had spent long years in jail, longer than what they would have spent if they had been punished for the offences for which they were arrested. This report prompted an advocate to file a petition. The Supreme Court heard this case. It became famous as one of the early Public Interest Litigations (PILs). This was the Hussainara Khatoon vs. Bihar case.
  • In 1980, a prison inmate of the Tihar jail managed to send a scribbled piece of paper to Justice Krishna Iyer of the Supreme Court narrating physical torture of the prisoners. The judge got it converted into a petition. Though later on, the Court abandoned the practice of considering letters, this case, known as Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration (1980) also became one of the pioneers of public interest litigation.


Bibliography : NCERT – Indian Constitution At Work


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