*Public Interest Litigation in India
In the 1980s, an activist judiciary evolved the concept of public interest litigation within the framework of the Constitution. It loosened the traditional approach towards standing to sue and the gathering of evidence in certain circumstances, and made possible class action litigation on behalf of the poor. Any person acting bonafide could file a petition in the High Courts and Supreme Court for the enforcement of the fundamental rights of the poor. The Court could even act suo-moto (on it’s own without a petition being filed). Thereafter it became the responsibility of the state to gather further evidence in support of the petition. The proceedings were termed non-adversarial as it was the duty of the state to enforce fundamental rights.
Though very fine cases with national ramifications were conducted, earning for the Indian judiciary an international reputation, the trickle down benefits for the poor remained exactly that – a trickle. There remained a huge gap between the grand letter of the law and its enforcement. And as the innovation began to lose its novelty, misuse and disinterest began to take their toll. It soon became obvious that general cases, carried out without the provision of routine legal aid in a sustained manner, would not bring about any real change.
Institutionalizing the provision of legal services was also necessary as the country was huge and ad-hoc responses made hardly any impression.
India has one of the best legal systems in the developing world and an extensive array of laws; however, these laws are poorly implemented. The system is biased in favor of the upper classes and discriminates against the poor. The abject levels of poverty lead to very low levels of literacy, particularly legal literacy. Corruption, delays and the expense of litigation cripple the system.
Yet there is tremendous scope for reform. Strengthening the legal system is critical for democracy to survive. Lawyers, paralegals and rights-based NGOs can play a critical role in preventing the decline of the justice system. This requires a concerted intervention based on sound ethical principles and professional competence.
Human Rights Network evolved out of a national workshop on ‘Human Rights, Social Movements and the Law in India ‘ in 1989. In the late 1980s, when our work began, it took the form of day-to-day legal aid for poor people. HRLN found itself growing in a situation where there were very few groups providing legal aid for the poor. The NGOs were teaching rights but ‘access to justice’ work, where practical results were obtained from the legal system, was hardly ever carried out.
But routine legal aid cannot have each of an impact on society as a whole. So by the late 1980s, PILs went hand in hand with building up a network and campaigns. In the meantime, the state set up its legal aid services, but these remained bureaucratic and inaccessible
The late 1980s also witnessed a debate on the approach that was needed for legal work. Some thought that work had to be concentrated at the High Courts and the Supreme Court because, they believe that change would come from there. We believed that a judicious mix of work in the lower courts – the Labor Courts, the Family Courts, the Criminal Courts, and so on-along with work in the High Courts and the Supreme Court was the best approach. Cases of men against women and employers against workmen are, as a matter of principle, never undertaken. The latter path was a more arduous route but it laid a better foundation because it maintained at all times a close contact with the people and because it served as a good training ground for young lawyers who would later form the cadre base of HRLN.
The year 2000 was a turning point in more than one way. The national conference on ‘Human Rights, Social Movements, Globalisation and the Law’ brought HRLN center-stage with 1,400 lawyers, activists, judges, journalists and others participating over seven days. The Conference was attended by many representatives from grassroots movements, development organizations and provided a platform where members of the judiciary could gain an insight into social movements. The Conference also situated the Indian movement in an international context, particularly with the participation of the South African Constitutional Court judges, members of the CRC and judges from Europe . In many ways the Conference helped consolidate HRLN’s work. It showed that there was an increasing need for such human rights and law initiatives and many young people came forward to join the movement. HRLN has since grown and is today recognized as a significant national presence.
The way ahead
From 1989, Human Rights Law Network has grown from a fledgling law firm to an organisation with legal aid centers in several parts of India . The Network has grown to become one of the foremost organizations in the country working on access to justice for marginalized individuals and communities. In collaboration with effective communities, NGOs and the judiciary, HRLN also works on training in human rights law, law reform, monitoring and investigation into human rights abuse and ‘know-your-rights ‘publications.
We started as a Network to enable common people to use the courts to fight for justice, and it is with that vision that we continue to work and grow.