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Public Interest Litigation and Locus Standi

In the past the paradise of justice was the monopoly of the affluent.

Locus standi: Legal right or interest of a person is infringed, threatened or clouded. Then only, the controversy which he raised in court should be focussed on his individual grievance and interest. The court couldd pronounce judgment. This traditional concept is called locus standi. This principle of locus standi was strictly enforced and consistenly insisted upon by the courts in India. Locus STANDI concept prescribes that unless a person has suffered a direct injury or is aggrieved by the act he proposes to challenge, his action is not maintainable in a court of law. The genesis of Locus standi doctrine is in the Common Law. The king ruled the country. He was collecting taxe sand waging wars. He was maintaining a general order in society. The subjects were left free in all their activities provided they obeyed the laws. In individual disputes alone conflicting parties sought justice. The nature of litigation in courts in the early days was essentially contractual. The rule of 'privity of contract' governed the field. Standing or locus standi is the right of a person to sue or to seek relief in a court of law. A substantive right or interest must be possessed by a person. When it is alleged to be infringed or endangered by an action. It is this factor that gives the litigant the personal qualification to challenge an illegal administrative or legislative act or any other litigation.

Principle behind the concept of locus standi

The concept of locus standi is based on two principles:

  1. The petitioner (litigant) himself must have a grievance and
  2. He cannot base his claim on the grievance of another person.

The courts use to insist interchangeably on requirements like `legal right', 'special interest',“ 'sufficient interest' and whether the duty sought to be enforced is owed to him.

In modern day, this class-oriented common law system of dispensation of justice is now giving way to a new mass-oriented jurisprudence. This new trend drives away the past evils of legal technicality and procedural rigidity by introduction of the Public Interest Litigation.

Public interest litigation

It can be traced to Roman Law. In that law it was open to any person to bring what was called an actio popularis in respect of public delict or to sue for a prohibitory or restitutory interdict for the protection of res sacrae and res publicae. The actio popularis may be the ancestor of our public interest litigation. The foundation of this principle is the interest of the Crown as parents patriae in upholding the law for the benefit of the general public. The Crown is interested in seeing that public bodies discharge their functions properly. They should not abuse or misuse their powers. This device imposes a measure of control over situations where members of the public might bring uncoordinated actions. This is a regulated form of actio popularis. Litigation in public interest began acquiring popularity in the U.S in the early sixties. The reason was the failure of the administrative agencies. The advent of democracy, the centre of power shifted from the king to the representatives of the people elected and assembled in Parliament. They had to face elections periodically. To ensure their re-election, it was imperative for them to serve public interest. In their endeavour to promote a Welfare State, the representative institutions assumed more and more powers. Welfare legislations proliferated. The man in the street began to come into constant contact with the State in his everyday life. With its spawning laws and increased power, the State frequently infringed the rights of the individuals. This threw up a new type of litigation with the citizen pitted against the State. Rule of Law required that every executive action should be supported by law.

The objectives of this device::

  1. Representating the interests in society.
  2. Securing justice, political as well as social to the economically and socially handicapped. For the purpose of ensuring justice, the administrative and other political machinery should work in a way subservient to the interests of the general public.
  3. The courts try to further these objectives by increasingly allowing resort to public interest litigation.
  4. All members of society must be encouraged to bring before court the situations that warrant courts' intervention. Such a course will help bringing before court vital issues of public interest which require urgent solutions. The Judiciary should be sensitive to the injustice suffered by people. Thereby the temple of justice can secure the ends of justice and participative democracy.

In writs of Habeas Corpus or Quo Warranto personal liberty and usurpation of public office are accepted to be of general public concern.

Public interest litigation and legal aid movement demanded more relaxed standing rules. This can be seen from the decisions of the Supreme Court recognising the standing of unrecognised trade unions, the legal profession, 1aw teachers etc. In November, 1982, Mr. Sudeep Mazumdar, a newspaperman could invite the attention of the Supreme Court by a letter to the injuries and accidental killings of tribals in the largest in A. B. S. K. Sangh (Railway) v. Union of India and other's.1) Other miseries could be invited for securing ends of justice by temples of justice in S. P. Gupta and others v. President of India and others, 2) Dr. Upendra Baxi v. State of U.P.3) Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India4)

Ammunition testing range of the army near Itarsy in Madhya Pradesh: People were dying in large numbers while collecting scrap from the exploding shells. This was a typical situation where the court should have been eager to interfere. The court framed a set of ten questions on public interest litigation, doubting its legitimacy and questioning the liberal approach to locus standi adopted in earlier cases and. It referred them to a Constitution Bench for decision.

Public interest litigation is to serve as a means to facilitate access to courts. It is intended to render justice to the poor people of India. Any uncertainty that clouds the concept will discourage prospective litigants from approaching the courts in public interest. There are innumerable classes of people in our society with varied interests and to qualify them for locus standi on the basis of identity of `person' would be impossible. The question may arise can a lawyer challenge misappropriation of funds by a municipality? Or should he be a rate-payer too at the same time? Can the prospective purchaser of a motor car challenge non-maintenance of roads by the municipality? Or should he be a car-owner? It is difficult to assess one way or the other. The further question is, if roads are not maintained properly, is it not in public interest that the municipalities be compelled to do their duty. If so, does it matter whether the litigant is a car owner, a prospective car-owner or x, y, or z?

Now the Supreme Court asserts as a general rule that a total stranger cannot enforce the fundamental rights of another person. In cases where the affected party is in some way disadvantaged, the court will allow a member of the public acting bonafide, to espouse the cause of such person or class of persons. The beneficiaries of the action should be socially disadvantaged. The litigant should be acting bonafide. In the Judges Transfer case, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the liberal rules of locus standi. The identity of the litigant is immaterial in deciding the merits of the case. In the same way, the motive or intention of the litigant is also immaterial. The objective of public interest litigation is that the device can play in our contemporary society whereby public interest could be enforced. The conservative attitude of the court surfaced creating of uncertainties in the future course of liberalisation of locus standi is uncalled for. It has been surfaced only by the persons who are appointed for ulterior motives as evidenced now that even persons at the stature of ex-CJI are accepting the post of Governor or Rajya Sabha or other posts after retirement.

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A.I.R. 1981 S.C. 298
AIR. 1982 S.C. 149
1981 3 scale 1137 as cited in A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 149 at p. 188
A.I.R. 1984 S.C. 802 per Bhagwati, J. at p. 813