By: Nick Robinson
PIL proceedings should be transparent, and should let citizens intervene
In the run up to his retirement last week, Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam attended to a number of pending cases before him, including a PIL in which his bench ordered the creation of a central committee on road safety to better implement India’s traffic laws. This PIL is like many others that the Supreme Court has issued directions on over the years — a case of national importance that impacts numerous parties across the country. You might think the court should or should not be involved in such “activist” cases, or that in this particular case the court had the right or wrong approach, but before the media reported the court’s orders you likely did not even know that this case existed. In most PILs, the public largely finds out about the case only after the court has given its directions, even though orders in these cases will frequently directly impact many people’s lives.
NGOs, community groups, academics, concerned citizens, and even the media are often blindsided by PILs on issues that they work on which they did not even know were being considered by the court. Even if they are aware that a PIL exists, they frequently do not know what the parties in the PIL are asking the court for or in what direction arguments are progressing.
Contrast this to Parliament, where bills are announced far in advance, there is often an opportunity to comment on them in committee, and one can read the draft bills and parliamentary debates online. In comparison, the PIL is a black box. Unless you are a court insider, you cannot keep track of what PILs are pending and unless you are a party to a case, you cannot even obtain a copy of the filings in the matter. You might know that there is a PIL that the court is hearing on how best to conserve the river valley you call home or which might impact your disabled relative, but you have to rely on scattered media reports or word of mouth to know how the PIL is developing. Even if a potentially interested party wanted to listen in person to arguments in a PIL, they could not necessarily sit in the courtroom because they are not officially a party to the case. Besides, given frequent adjournments and scheduling changes, all but the most committed members of the public are effectively barred from listening to arguments in open court.
It does not have to be this way. A simple first step that could be taken to make the process much more transparent is to have all PIL petitions be accessible to the public (along with the government’s response and all other filings continued…