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What can public interest litigation do for me?



Public interest litigation (PIL) can be an excellent way to secure justice if you have suffered loss or harm in circumstances which raise questions of public interest.  However, sometimes PIL may not be the best way to achieve the outcome you need.

Here we explain briefly some of the factors that may help you decide if PIL may be useful to you.


How Public Interest Litigation can help you

There are many advantages to using PIL as a tool to secure justice. If you feel PIL could help you and your community, it could be worth pursuing further.

a) Access to justice

PIL can secure justice for large numbers of people affected by a common problem.

A single PIL case can secure remedies that benefit all victims, whether or not they have been directly involved in the court process. This can be in the form of compensation, or an order to prevent someone harming you and your community. This can be particularly useful where poor and marginalised groups suffer a common hardship.

In ordinary litigation brought by a victim against a wrongdoer, the cost and resources involved in bringing the legal action are sometimes unaffordable. Because PIL can extend the benefits of a favourable court order to a large number of people, resources can be pooled and cost can be shared across larger groups.

And when the case is in the public interest, there are often a range of organisations that are willing to offer resources and support. This means PIL can be an accessible and effective tool in the hands of the very people who need it most.

Example: using PIL to challenge land grabs in Kenya

In the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a grouping of local community groups and international organisations successfully challenged the Kenyan governments practice of evicting indigenous communities from their land.
In a single ruling, compensation and the right for thousands of indigenous peoples to return to their lands was secured. A result which was made possible by the pooling of resources and expertise across different organisations.

If you want to secure justice for your community, but need support in doing do, PIL could still be the right tool for you.

For further information, see “What Remedy Should I Seek?

b) Empowerment and Promoting Accountable Government

By allowing marginalised groups to challenge unjust action, PIL can empower oppressed peoples. It can unite citizens and civil society groups with diverse interests and backgrounds, provide a forum for them to be heard, and build a common platform to push for change.

From this platform, people can hold governments to account for failures to protect the people they serve.

Example: challenging a government’s role in environmental destruction

In the process of challenging the Nigerian government’s human rights abuses and complicity in environmental destruction in the Niger Delta, a diverse group of communities came together to exercise their voice and hold the government accountable before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The case succeeded on putting the governments abuses on record, upholding the rights of affected communities, and forcing the government to cease its violent practices, conduct investigations and undertake an environmental clean-up in the region.

Beyond achieving justice for affected communities, the accountability PIL can bring benefits all of society by confirming the importance of the rule of law in regulating government actions, and in upholding domestic and international standards of human rights.

Example: upholding the independence of the judiciary 

In the East African Court of Justice, a group of activists, who had been wrongfully imprisoned before a military court in Uganda, succeeded in challenging their imprisonment on the grounds it violated the rule of law. The judgement upheld the independence of courts and prevented future practices of the government taking the law into their own hands.

This combination of citizen engagement with a practical strategy to limit abuse of power makes it a powerful tool for human rights activists to achieve justice across society.

c) Law and Policy Reform

PIL can achieve meaningful reforms of policies and laws which breach human rights or constitutional provisions.

A PIL case can challenge an unjust policy, law or procedure and can lead to systemic legal change from which all citizens may benefit. In this sense, PIL does not just react to unjust practices, but is proactive, helping to create pressure to make a fairer system for all.

Example: using PIL to compel a government to investigate historic enforced disappearances

In Nepal, following a successful case brought by victims’ families, the Supreme Court ordered the government to change its policy of refusing to investigate past practices of enforced disappearances and provide remedies to victims, while obliging them to establish a truth commission.

PIL can also obtain a legal interpretation on an untested legal issue and challenge how a particular law or policy is implemented. In this way, PIL can establish a point of principle which governments and corporations are required to follow. Such an outcome can provide clarity for future conduct and define the legal obligations of public or private individuals and organisations.

Example: upholding freedom of expression in Uganda

Facing restrictions on free speech and the imprisonment of government critics, the Ugandan Supreme Court upheld the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The court set out wide protections for the right to freedom of expression, preventing government from making further restrictions in the future, and ordered them to stop criminal prosecutions of political speech.

In this way, PIL can be invaluable tool in strengthening human rights protections in society more generally.

d) Transparency

Even if unsuccessful, a PIL case can shed light on information previously kept secret and enable truth to be heard. PIL court procedures often involve the compulsory disclosure by each party of relevant documents. This can mean that relevant evidence that is in the public interest can come to light. This can powerfully promote transparency by creating access and bringing public attention to information that may be vital to addressing a human rights concern or promoting social change.

Example: securing access to information in Chile

After hearing a claim brought by a Chilean environmental organisation, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled the right to access information was itself a human right which the State was obligated to provide in all but exceptional cases. This paved the way for greater transparency across the Americas.

If you believe the government or a corporation are withholding vital information from the public, PIL can be a powerful tool in uncovering such information. This can then be used to hold government/corporations accountable in the public domain or through the legal process.

e) Raising Awareness and Promoting Debate

Beyond providing legal redress, PIL can raise public awareness on a particular issue. If combined with an effective media strategy, PIL can focus public scrutiny on a problem and allow for debate. In the digital age, high-profile coverage of a PIL case can have as much, if not more, influence on achieving change than the courtroom process itself.

Example: using PIL to put pressure on large corporations to behave more responsibly

Following 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 their neglect 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.

If your objective is to secure lasting change in your community, it is not only the outcome of the individual court case that is important, but it is often the wider campaign for justice in the PIL process that will be effective. You should therefore consider carefully how best to brief the media at the outset of any PIL case, and how best to maintain their continued interest and involvement as the case progresses.


Potential disadvantages of public interest litigation

While PIL can be extremely effective in securing justice for marginalised communities, there are circumstances in which bring a PIL case may not be appropriate or capable of meeting your needs.

In deciding whether to bring a PIL case, it is first important to consider the following factors.

a) PIL Can Be Time Consuming

Litigation often takes many months or years, particularly if the courts of more than one country are involved. Therefore, bring a PIL case may not be appropriate for you if you need a quick solution to an immediate problem.

Example: pursuing industrial pollution losses in India

Despite occurring over 30 years ago, legal actions are still being pursued against Union Carbide for toxic gas leaks in India caused by their negligence. While some compensation has been awarded, this has been a long and exhausting process for victims.

Example: securing justice for pollution damage in Nigeria

The campaign for justice against Shell for its exploitation and abuse in the Niger Delta has span over 20 years, involving cases being brought before Nigerian, US, British and Dutch courts, as well as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. While this campaign has secured justice for thousands of victims, it has been a long, protracted process.

While PIL cases often take a long time to be resolved, courts often have the power to make emergency orders or take ‘provisional measures’ when responding to the urgent needs of litigants.

This allows litigants to secure a temporary solution for an immediate problem, while pursuing the longer-term goals of bringing a PIL case. This is often vital for protecting litigants from harassment and intimidation, providing for their security.

Example: emergency security orders in Latin America

Across Latin America, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights has protected many environmental and human rights activists from imminent threats by ordering their governments to provide for their immediate security needs.

Nonetheless, if you do not have the necessary time to commit to bringing a PIL case, it is better to pursue alternatives.

b) PIL Can Be Costly

In general, litigation is very costly, requiring significant resources to obtain effective legal representation and gather evidence. This is no different for PIL, which can be particularly costly, given the complexity of the cases and the often powerful defendants claims are brought against.

However, as demonstrated above, PIL can be an accessible option when the resources of a large group are pooled together or support is given by non-governmental organisations. In this way, the costs of PIL can be shared effectively. Equally, there are a number of ways you can finance your claim with the help of organisations or state funding.

In light of this, if you are clear on your objectives, PIL can help achieve those objectives, and you are aware of what financing options are available, do not allow the cost of PIL to stop you from pursuing your claim further.

For further information, see “How Can I Finance my Action?”.

c) The Risks Involved

Litigation can create conflict between the parties. As PIL often involves challenging the interests of powerful individuals/groups, it can be a dangerous process. Therefore, a group bringing a claim must be prepared to face public pressure, intimidating behaviour, and even physical danger.

Example: personal safety risks for environmental defenders

Tragically, environmental defenders across the world, who seek to protect and conserve their community’s natural resources, are often targeted and killed when they stand up to powerful organisations seeking to exploit their land. Many more are subject to intimidation and threats.

Being aware of the risks involved in bring a PIL case is essential to your safety and security. While the risks can be significant, they will depend on your circumstances, and there are often a number of strategies available to reduce your security risks.

Before bringing a PIL claim forward, assess the risks in your situation, and seek to balance your security needs with the potential benefits an effective PIL claim could bring.

For further information, see “How do I Deal with my Security?

d) You Need a Strong Legal Case

Considering the time, expense and dangers that can be involved in bringing a PIL claim, it is essential you only bring a claim that has a reasonable chance of achieving your objectives and securing justice for you and your community. This is especially important, as losing a PIL case could make the situation worse for you and your community by strengthening the position of the other party.

For your claim to be successful in court, it must be based on a strong legal case, not just a moral issue. This means your claim must involve a genuine entitlement to legal rights which have been breached by the other party. Equally, you must have the facts and evidence to prove your legal rights have been breached by the other party.

For general information on gathering evidence and proving your case, see:

For further information on whether your case involves a breach of legal rights and to how to prove it, go to the relevant legal area on our website. The following links will explain the legal aspects of problems in the following areas:

While a strong legal case is often essential, this depends on your objectives and circumstances. Even PIL cases that are unsuccessful in court can benefit communities and victims of abuse, by providing for transparency and greater public awareness (see above).

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