Changing Contours of Locus Standi in Indian Constitutional Jurisprudence

By Manisha Chaudhary, Associate (July 9, 2010)

In the common law and under many statues, Locus Standi or standing is the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to, and harm from, the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case1. Thus it expresses the obligation on a litigant to show he has an interest in the subject matter of the dispute in legal proceedings2. The rules as to standing vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and may be defined by statute or may be found in the case law.

Locus Standi can be easily determined for the parties to a dispute arising from a road traffic accident or a contract. The difficulty arises in areas such a Planning Law, Environmental Law or Constitutional Law.

The Indian constitution is a written constitution. It is made for the common people. It is so construed that any man can understand and appreciate it. The more they understand it the more they love it and the more they prize it3. Its Preamble encapsulates the basic objective of the Constitution-makers to build a new socio-economic order where there will be social, economic and political justice for everyone and equality of status and opportunity for all.

The basic objective of the Indian constitution mandates every organ of the State, namely the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, to work harmoniously to strive to realize the objectives mentioned in the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP). It has now been understood that in order to achieve the desired objectives of the constitution all Fundamental Rights have to be read in accord with DPSP.

Social justice is the signature tune of the Constitution of India. Social justice presupposes abhorrence for economic exploitation. As a matter of fact, social justice constitutes the bed-rock on which the entire edifice of the Indian Constitution is built up. The post-independence era therefore, witnessed a period of extensive social reforms and progress with the promulgation of the Constitution.

The task of enforcing Fundamental Rights has been assigned to the Supreme Court and the High Courts and the right to move the Supreme Court for enforcement of Fundamental Rights has itself been elevated to the status of a Fundamental Right under Article 32 of the Constitution. Article 32 states, “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this part is guaranteed”.

However access to justice to protect their Fundamental Rights was almost illusory for weaker sections of Indian humanity due to their poverty, ignorance and illiteracy. Because of their handicap, they lacked the capacity to assert their rights. Thus, majority of the people were subjected to denial of justice. The Constitution had indeed shown a great concern for the underprivileged, conferring on them many rights and entitlements and laying obligations on the State to take measures for improving their condition. The government did a lot of commendable work for the weaker section; however there was a need for more passion, dynamism and vigour. Thus someone had to act.

To reach out, the Supreme Court, therefore, liberated itself from the traditional thought, ways and made innovative use of judicial power by developing a variety of techniques to make access to justice a reality.

One of the most serious stumbling blocks in the advancement of social justice to the under-privileged in India was the requirement of Locus standi. The traditional doctrine of locus standi had its roots in the adversarial litigation which was of ancient vintage and insisted on direct injury to the aggrieved that alone had a right to bring an action. The State was regarded to be the sole guardian of public interest and the individual had no role to play in overseeing the administration. Prior to 1980s, only the aggrieved party could personally knock the doors of justice and seek remedy for his grievance and any other person who was not personally affected could not knock the doors of justice as a proxy for the victim or the aggrieved party. In other words, only the affected parties had the locus standi (standing required in law) to file a case and continue the litigation and the non affected persons had no locus standi to do so.

Departing from the conventional approach Justice Krishna Iyer for the first time advanced liberal interpretation of locus standi in Dabholkar’s case4. It was the liberalisation of the rule of locus standi, which gave birth to Public Interest Litigation or PIL for short.

The Indian judiciary which was hitherto enforcing only the Fundamental Rights of the rich and affluent sections of the society had now come to the rescue of the poor through Public Interest Litigation (PIL) or Social Action litigation5. The PIL therefore was and is a remarkable landmark in the modern judicial system of India. It represents the innovative use of judicial power to ameliorate the miseries of common man arising from repression, governmental lawlessness and administrative deviance. It has established itself as an effective means to secure implementation of the constitutional and legal rights of the under-privileged and ensuring social justice to them.
The entire scenario gradually changed when the post emergency Supreme Court tackled the problem of access to justice by people through radical changes and alterations made in the requirements of locus standi and of party aggrieved. The splendid efforts of Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were instrumental of this juristic revolution of eighties to convert the apex court of India into a Supreme Court for all Indians6.

The Supreme Court realised that it was necessary to depart from the traditional rule of locus standi and to broaden access to justice by providing that where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a class of persons, who by reason of their poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position, cannot approach the court for relief, any member of the public or social action group or interest group or a concerned citizen, acting bona fide can maintain an application in the High Court(s) or the Supreme Court, seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or injury caused to such person or class of persons.

Perhaps in one of the first PIL case, in the matter of Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs. Abdulbhai7, Justice Krishna Iyer held that, “Test litigations, representative actions, pro bono publico and like-broadened forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice for the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues on the merits by reliance on peripheral, procedural shortcomings… Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi…

The seed of the concept of PIL were initially sown in India by this judgement of the Supreme Court. Justice Iyer further held, “Our adjectival branch of jurisprudence, by and large, deals not with sophisticated litigants but the rural poor. Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latitudinarians permits taking liberties with individualisation of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker. Less litigation, consistent with fair process, is the aim of adjectival law.”

After the germination of the seeds of the concept of PIL in the soil of our judicial system, this rule of PIL was nourished, nurtured and developed by the Apex Court of this land by a series of outstanding decisions.

In 1979, in the matter of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration8, a three-Judge Bench heard the matter and while issuing various directions, it was opined that “technicalities and legal niceties are no impediment to the court entertaining even an informal communication as a proceeding for habeas corpus if the basic facts are found”. The letter written by two prison inmates on the plight of the other inmates was treated as a writ petition. The Supreme Court rose to the occasion and public interest litigation acquired a new dimension and legitimacy.

In the year 1979, the Supreme Court, in the matter of Hussainara Khatoon (I) to Hussainara Khatoon (VI) v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar9, gave the rule of locus standi a new platform. A writ petition was filed by an advocate of the Supreme Court drawing attention of the Court to the plight of the under-trial prisoners. The Supreme Court accepted the locus standi of an advocate to maintain the writ petition.

In 1981, Justice Bhagwati in S. P. Gupta v. Union of India10 , articulated the concept of PIL as follows, “Where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of violation of any constitutional or legal right or any burden is imposed in contravention of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened and such person or determinate class of persons by reasons of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, any member of public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in case of any breach of Fundamental Rights of such persons or determinate class of persons, in this court under Article 32, seek judicial redress for the legal wrong or legal injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons.”

The judgment recognized the locus standi of lawyers to file writ petition. The intervention of law teachers and students in bringing justice to the poor through PIL is yet another landmark in the development of the rule of locus standi in India. Justice Bhagwati in Upender Baxi and ors v. State of U.P.11 treated a letter of two law teachers alleging inhuman conditions for the inmates of the Agra Protective Home for Women violating Right under Article 21 as a writ petition and upheld maintainability of action by them. The Court gave a series of orders to the U.P Government to ameliorate the conditions of the residents of the Agra Protective Home.
Presently the rule of locus standi has evolved greatly. Representative standing can be seen as a creative expansion of the well-accepted standing exception which allows a third party to file a habeas corpus petition on the ground that the injured party cannot approach the court himself. And in this regard the Indian concept of PIL is much broader in relation to the other countries like the USA and the UK.

The strict rule of locus standi has been relaxed by way of (a) Representative Standing, and (b) Citizen Standing. In D.C. Wadhwa v. State of Bihar, AIR 1987 SC 579, the Supreme Court of India held that a petitioner, a professor of political science who had done substantial research and deeply interested in ensuring proper implementation of the constitutional provisions, challenged the practice followed by the State of Bihar in propagating a number of ordinances without getting the approval of the Legislature. The court held that the petitioner as a member of public has ‘sufficient interest’ to maintain a petition under Article 32.

The rule of locus standi have been relaxed and a person acting bonafide and having sufficient interest in the proceeding of PIL will alone have a locus standi and can approach the court to wipe out violation of Fundamental Rights and genuine infraction of statutory provisions, but not for personal gain or private profit or political motive or any oblique consideration12.

However in the matter of Indian Banks’ Association, Bombay and Ors v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors.13, held that “In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice. Thus a private interest case can also be treated as public interest case”.

The development on the Indian judicial system in respect to PILs and locus standi had resulted in following:
1. The common rule of locus standi is relaxed so as to enable the court to look into the grievances complained on behalf of the poor, deprived, illiterate and the disabled who cannot vindicate the legal wrong or legal injury caused to them for any violation of any constitutional or legal right.
2. When the court is prima facie satisfied about variation of any constitutional right of a group of people belonging to the disadvantaged category, it may not allow the State or the government from raising the question as to the maintainability of the petition.
3. Although procedural laws apply to PIL cases but the question as to whether the principles of res judicata or provisions analogous thereto would apply depend on the nature of the petition as also facts and circumstances of the case.
4. By democratization of access to justice, any public-spirited citizen or social action group can approach the court on behalf of the oppressed classes. Court’s attention can be drawn even by writing a letter or sending a telegram. This has been called “epistolary jurisdiction”.

The social justice requirement of India mandates that the concept of locus standi should be treated with a pragmatic approach. The present socio, economic and political conditions of India requires a “liberal locus standi<” policy. Thus, PIL should be entertained as much as possible, by diluting the concept of locus standi. The recent changes in the Constitutional jurisprudence of India point to only one thing i.e. “the dignity of man supersedes all other considerations”14


1 Wikipedia
2 Edward Mcgarr, Solicitors (website content)
3 Praveen Dalal, Arbitrator, High Court of New Delhi
4 Dr. N.V. Paranjape
5 Prof. Upendra Baxl
6 Shri. V.S. Vadivel, FCA, ACS on Legal Service India
7 AIR 1976 SC, 1455
8 (1978) 4 SCC 409
9 AIR 1979 SC 1360, AIR 1979 SC 1369, AIR 1979 SC 1377, AIR 1979 SC 1819, AIR 1979 SC 1819, (1995) 5 SCC 326
10 1981 (Supp) SCC 87, Re: Judges Transfer Case
11 AIR 1987 SC 191
12 Ashok Kumar Pandey v. State of West Bengal (2004) 3 SCC 349
13 J. T. 2004 (4) SC 587
14 Justice A.S. Anand




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