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Although PIL is often used as part of a wider campaign, the main aim of PIL is to secure a concrete solution to a problem.
In terms of litigation, this concrete solution is provided in the form of a “remedy”.
A “remedy” is a legal reparation ordered by a court, i.e. a court order designed to make amends for something wrong that has happened.
A court will give a remedy after it finds there has been a legal wrong committed against a party.
This formal finding is very important. It shows that the successful party’s position is right, which can have significant consequences (aside from the remedy ordered).
In Latin America, numerous cases have recognised governments’ past practices of enforced disappearances. This has vindicated victims’ experiences, put the crimes on record, prevented impunity, and created greater understanding of their suffering.
Once a court finds there has been a legal wrong, the following remedies may be available:
a) A Declaratory Judgement
A declaratory judgement is a ruling that expresses authoritative support for a group’s argument or complaint.
An example could be a statement that a law violates your human rights.
b) A legal order requiring an action to be taken
This is sometimes known as specific performance.
An example could be an order requiring the government to provide housing for homeless peoples.
c) A legal order stopping an event from happening
This is often known as an injunction.
An example could be an order stopping a mine being built near your land.
A ruling ordering a payment to a group of people who have been legally wronged.
This is often known as damages or restitution.
Compensation can relate to;
e) Law Reform
In addition to remedies relating to a specific action, a successful PIL case can change the law itself, or government policy.
This is done by creating a “legal precedent” (a rule that must be followed in the future). This can ensure no other person will suffer the same the wrong.
This can happen in the following ways;
As you prepare a PIL case, it is important to think about what solution you want to achieve. This means thinking about what “remedy” you want the court to order.
The remedy sought must be determined by your objectives in bringing a PIL case.
What solution do I need to secure justice?
Consider the following objectives and the remedies that could achieve them:
a) Changing the Law which Violates your Rights
It is likely a structural remedy, ordering the government to change the law, will be required.
In Australia, laws criminalising homosexuality were considered discriminatory by the UN Human Rights Committee. This lead to the law being changed, ending the discrimination.
b) Getting Clarity on the Meaning of Unclear Laws
A declaratory ruling will be most appropriate if this is your objective. This is important, as unclear laws can be abused by other groups.
In Uganda, the Supreme Court has outlined the boundaries of the right to freedom of expression in the constitution. By clearing up the law, this has protected free speech against future government interference.
c) Securing Something that You Are Entitled to
A court order requiring a government/company to act will often be the most appropriate remedy. This can uphold your rights.
In South Africa, the government was ordered to make available anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women suffering from HIV across the country.
d) Ending an On-Going Violation
If you want to stop a specific ongoing violation, an injunction or court order stopping an event/action will be most appropriate.
Across the world, courts regularly order police to release people who have been wrongfully arrested, often without charge or evidence.
e) Preventing a Violation from Happening Again
Forcing governments/companies to pay compensation for past wrongs can have a useful deterrent effect, stopping future abuses.
The vast sum of compensation BP had to pay concerning the Gulf of Mexico oil spill created a strong incentive for the industry to clean up its act in the US and abroad.
Equally, obtaining structural remedies (changing government policy/law) or declaratory judgements (confirming the legal position on an issue) can prevent future violations.
In the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, key judgements have forced change on laws and customary rules concerning slavery in Niger and Mauritania. This has protected future generations from exploitation.
f) Preventing a Violation Before it Occurs
An injunction stopping an event from happening, or order requiring government action, will be most appropriate in this circumstance.
A wide range of courts around the world have prevented governments from deporting individuals to countries where they would be persecuted.
g) Raising Public Awareness about a Violation
If you want to raise public awareness, asking for a large sum of compensation could be a bad idea, as the public may think the case is only about money and not about establishing an important principle.
Instead, a declaratory judgement may be appropriate.
In Botswana, declaratory judgements have been given to highlight the unlawfulness of citizenship laws which discriminate against women.
In other situations, the very process of bringing a case, regardless of the outcome, may raise public awareness of an issue and create public support for change in a law or practice. An official remedy may not even be needed in such cases.
After the Rana Plaza tragedy, where a textile manufacturing complex burned down, killing over 1000 Bangladeshi workers, several cases have been brought against large clothing companies for neglecting for their workers’ health and safety. While many cases have failed due to complex subcontracting arrangements that big companies hide behind, the publicity and outrage created by the cases have led some companies to adjust their manufacturing practices.
h) Restoring Victims to the Position They Were in Before the Violation
Achieving this may involve a combination of financial compensation, and orders by the court for restoration of the victims’ property/rights.
In Paraguay, after an indigenous community had been removed from their land, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered the government to return their lands, pay compensation, and provide essential services as they re-established themselves on their land. This effectively returned them to their original position.
This will depend on the wrong that has been committed and the suffering it has created.
i) Making Amends for Irreversible Loss Suffered by Victims
Where the victim cannot be restored to their original position, financial compensation will be the most appropriate remedy.
The Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered Guatemala to pay $8,000,000 to compensate victims for the wrongful killing of civilians during the civil war.
j) Seeking Accountability and Acknowledgement of Wrongdoing
Declaratory judgements can provide for accountability/acknowledgement by making a wrong public.
Courts can also make orders requiring investigations into violations, or even setting up public inquiries to provide for accountability.
In Guatemala (in relation to the abduction and murder of a person by armed forces), the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered the government to begin investigations, and publicly publish their finding.
Compensation can provide a form of accountability, by required a government/company to pay for their wrongs.
k) Ending Systemic Violations
A simple injunction may be too narrow to deal with widespread violations carried out on a regular basis.
Ending systemic violations may require structural remedies, such as the ordering of law reform, policy changes, or encouraging greater social change.
In Australia, High Court rulings recognising the native land rights of indigenous groups forced the government to change the laws regarding land title, overturning decades of legalised discrimination.
Sometimes, there may be no court remedy that can provide the solution you want. If this is the case, consider alternatives to bringing a PIL case.
Consider the following examples;
For further information, see “Alternatives to PIL: Alternative Dispute Resolution” and “Alternatives to PIL: Campaigning”.
PIL can be used alongside other methods of promoting change like negotiations and campaigning. All can be useful tools in the broader project of enforcing one’s rights.
If you are bringing a case as a group or with an organisation, there may be differences between;
It’s important to discuss and resolve any differences like this at an early stage, before you bring a PIL case (for more information, see “How do I Manage my Group?“).
Once you have chosen what remedy you want to get, this can influence;
Arguments must be prepared to convince the court that the remedies asked for should be granted;
It is especially important to prepare good arguments if you are asking for a particularly strong or unusual remedy;
When preparing a case, it is important to have a strategy that ensures a remedy granted by the Court is actually implemented.
This means identifying the persons or institutions responsible for the implementation of the remedy and working out ways of ensuring that they act appropriately.
For further information, see “How Can I Enforce a Court Order?”