Courts coming down heavily on litigants is not a new phenomenon, especially in public interest litigation (PIL). Recently, chief justice of India T.S. Thakur asked if the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), a non-profit organisation, was a “professional litigant”.
In response, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan said CPIL was not a professional litigant, citing the fact that it received no funds for the cases it pursued.
“Most of the work is pro bono,” he said.
The inquiry comes in the light of an increase in the number of PILs filed in the high courts and the Supreme Court. The courts are generally critical of serial litigants and hold them to higher standards to test their motives. Courts are also wary of personal interests driving such litigation.
To put this in context, PILs have stirred reforms ranging from measures to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace to spectrum allocation and coal block allotments. There have also been frivolous PILs like one seeking the recall of the Indian cricket team after an overseas debacle; such cases are disposed of, with costs imposed on the petitioners.
But the court’s query in the case of CPIL highlights an interesting trend—”professional litigants” are emerging as a distinct class.
Non-profit organisations are adding litigation wings to file cases of public interest. For instance, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a human rights organisation that filed the PIL demanding the “right to food”.
NGO Common Cause, which calls itself an advocacy group, has listed on its website at least 18 PILs in the Supreme Court and five in various high courts.
These include cases seeking the court’s intervention on issues such as depiction of violence on television, challenging appointments made to the Central Vigilance Commission and irregularities in coal block allocations. Common Cause’s governing council includes Prashant Bhushan.
The court itself sought the assistance of one such litigant in a suo moto case probing the cause of 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), an Uttarakhand-based NGO, is involved in environmental litigation in the National Green Tribunal. In the Supreme Court, RLEK filed a PIL against limestone mining in the Doon valley in the 1980s.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an NGO focusing on electoral reforms, is associated with at least seven cases in the Supreme Court. Judgments on disqualification of convicted members of Parliament, paid news and foreign funding of political parties were all based on cases filed by the ADR.
Lawyers Collective, an NGO led by senior advocates Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, is leading the court battle against discrimination faced by HIV-positive citizens.
Shamnad Basheer, founder of the intellectual property website SpicyIP and former IP chair at National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, recently started the P-PIL initiative which promotes public interest lawyering.
In the most recent example, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based organization of environmental activists, led the campaign against air pollution in the courts. The centre’s findings and inputs were considered in justice Thakur’s 16 December order making it difficult for commercial vehicles to pass through Delhi to curb pollution.
The Supreme Court has comprehensive guidelines on who can file PILs. Organisations are required to disclose their funding and assets before the registrar of the court before filing such cases.
Somewhere in between part-time pro bono work by a few lawyers and high commercial litigation, professional advocacy of public causes is making its presence felt in India. The issues they can take up are almost unlimited. But the question is: how many will pass judicial scrutiny?