Every citizen has a right to get justice which is guaranteed under the Constitution. But for easy access to judicial remedy, a system should be created where everybody is confident that they will get the expected justice. The judicial administration should therefore be modified or improved so that due process is established under law.

This is more so in the case of public interest litigation or PIL. A chain of lower courts, High Courts and Supreme Court has been hearing various cases and disputes and delivering judgements on these to litigants in various parts of the country.

But those who approach the courts are typically people who can afford to pay fees to lawyers, who then decide whether a case is worth fighting in court, and also consider the fees required for processing in the justice administration.

What is the platform or provision for the poor in various parts of the country who need justice, but either cannot afford to pay or have no access to the corridors of higher courts? That is the vital question.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Ranjan Gogoi, has already stated that that PIL is for the poor. If so, this recourse should be available to the poor who are spread across various parts of the country. Is there any systemic provision which will ensure that a poor person in a remote village or town will have access to justice under the PIL?

The system today has blocked these roads. At present no district court is authorised to hear a PIL, nor can anybody approach their local court to hear it.

This prohibitory provision needs to be considered for modification. Because the very words ‘poor’ and ‘public interest’ have larger connotations, and their connotations need not be restricted to a centralised system.

When such a centralised provision was made in the good old days, the justice administrators or legislators might have thought that the legal acumen needed for arguing and hearing such vital public interest issues may not be duly available in the lower courts.

But now the situation has changed. The agony of people and the poor in particular is being voiced in many sections of the press. Earlier, most national newspapers were based in state capitals and it was quite reasonable that High Courts would be expected to consider cases for public interest litigation only on the basis of reports published in these newspapers.

Now, as most national newspapers are spread over regions and districts, more public grievances are being reported by way of news and investigative newsletters. Every district in the country has its own newspaper equipped with modern machinery and expertise, such that they almost compete with regional and national newspapers.

Even the national and regional newspapers are publishing regional and district editions which cover various issues with in-depth analysis and investigative penetration. These district editions of national newspapers are almost equal to the dailies based in state capitals and are now gaining the same status. They are concentrating on major issues which are in the public interest.

For instance, delays and corruption in administration, injustice in government departments, economic crimes which harass people and dupe them, irregularities in the nationalised and cooperative banking sectors, farmers’ problems, the hoarding of essential commodities by middlemen, and the documented failure of the decentralised Panchayat Raj system due to the bureaucracy’s non-cooperative attitude.

These are some of the subjects periodically covered by the district newspapers: important public issues and injustices which are taken up by the judicial system and vigilant judges through litigation in the public interest.

But at present, due to the prohibitive procedure, a citizen or social organisation cannot proceed with a PIL in the lower or district courts. In fact the PIL is a right given to every socially conscious member of society, or to public spirited NGOs who are ready to fight on behalf of the poor, to espouse a public cause by seeking judicial remedy. It is a device by which public participation in the judicial review of administrative action is ensured. It has the effect of making the judicial process a little more democratic.

In almost all Indian states, lethargy, inefficiency and corruption in government departments have become a bane for large numbers of people, and no state government has so far been able to eradicate them. The rule that a PIL can only be heard in High Courts or the Supreme Court therefore needs to be changed immediately.

For a PIL to be heard in the lower courts, a constitutional or legal amendment will be necessary. Such a provision should be made in order to promote public interest litigation for the sake of the public good, otherwise the grievances and injustices reported in the district newspapers will go neglected.

The district courts are competent enough to hear PIL cases. District level advocates also possess sufficient legal acumen and knowledge to be able to deal with the argumentative aspect of such cases with ease and expertise.

Both the union and state governments should take the lead, and MLAs and MPs of all political parties should support such a move. The state assemblies should demand an amendment by resolution, while Parliament will respond to the demand and pass the amendment unanimously.

Once the district courts are empowered to hear PIL cases, it will create an atmosphere conducive to legal remedies for the frustrations and grievances that are brought to light in local newspapers across the land.

Some exposés that went on to become national issues originated in the district editions of newspapers. If district courts are given the power to proceed with PILs, justice will be more easily available to people in small towns and the adjacent rural areas, where a large number of the poor in the country live.

So if the PIL is for the poor, will the poor get justice under it?

Prabhakar Kulkarni is a senior journalist and columnist.