About Public Interest Litigation
What is Public Interest Litigation?
Public interest litigation, or PIL, is defined as the use of litigation, or legal action, which seeks to advance the cause of minority or disadvantaged groups or individuals, or which raises issues of broad public concern.
It is a way of using the law strategically to effect social change. Despite the range of equality and human rights protections available in Northern Ireland, the reality is that not everyone has equal access to those rights and not everyone has the resources or capacity to challenge an abuse of their rights through the courts.
By taking cases that can benefit disadvantaged groups or minorities rather than just one person, PIL can be used to provide access to justice to those who are most in need of it and yet who find themselves furthest from it.
What can PIL do?
(A) Provide access to justice
Many people are simply not in a position to take legal action themselves. This may be due to personal, financial or time issues, they may not be aware of their rights or who to take their complaint to, or they may not have the capacity to advocate for themselves. A strategic public interest case can benefit, for example, children, minority groups, mental health patients or older people. PIL is a way of achieving justice and protecting the rights of such people, without every individual affected having to engage in litigation themselves.
(B) Reform the law
Public interest litigation can affect law reform by challenging laws that violate equality or human rights standards, seeking clarification on an untested point of law, identifying gaps in the law or challenging the existing interpretation or enforcement of a law.
(C) Hold government to account
PIL can be used to challenge government policies and procedures that violate human rights or equality standards and to provoke the political system into responding to a problem it has hitherto ignored. In doing so it can help provide a check on government, statutory and public bodies, holding them to account for failures to uphold domestic and international human rights and equality standards to which they are bound. It can also ensure that they respond to the needs of the public they represent, particularly disadvantaged and minority groups.
(D) Raise awareness
As well as providing legal redress, PIL is a useful way of raising awareness of issues. A high profile case can prompt public debate and bring about pressure for social and legislative change outside the court room.
PIL can also bring novel or untested issues of public interest to the attention of the courts and legal profession to raise awareness of the legal, social, economic and cultural factors that may be involved. This can help make the courts more receptive to similar challenges in the future.
(E) Empower the disadvantaged
By offering marginalised and disadvantaged groups a voice PIL can empower and mobilise civil society. It can provide an opportunity for people to challenge the disadvantages and injustices that they face.
Mobilising civil society is one of the key aims of the PILS Project Stakeholder Forum. As well as sharing developments and supporting public interest cases, members of the Forum play a key role in building support for ongoing cases within their own constituencies. They also have a role in monitoring the impact of court decisions to ensure that court judgments result in practical change on the ground.
(F) Save costs
Costs are a major factor for most people considering litigation. By taking strategic cases PIL can create a positive impact for a wide group of people without each of them having to go before the courts themselves, thus saving time and money for both victims and the courts.