What is Public Interest Litigation?

Mary McMahon

Public interest litigation is a court case brought to protect the interests of the general public, rather than to resolve a specific legal matter of concern. While there may be an immediate beneficial outcome, the goal of the litigation is to establish legal precedent or receive clarification on a legal matter so the public as a whole will benefit. Governments and private individuals can bring public interest litigation to the courtroom, and may pursue cases to the highest levels of the judiciary if they are not satisfied with an official outcome.

Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

Often, people use public interest litigation to protect public resources, like the environment. The government could sue for tougher pollution standards, or private parties could bring suit to address environmental concerns and ask for a judicial ruling. The case will be brought to court, heard, and judged, providing people with an opportunity to advocate for preservation of resources with public value. Waterways, wooded areas, and wetlands can all benefit from litigation.

People may also bring suit to protect or enforce legal rights. In many nations, the law sets out specific rights for citizens and public interest litigation can clarify and support these if they appear to be under threat. These suits are often brought by nonprofit organizations, sometimes on behalf of a person or group of people to have a case to use as a basis. Protecting the public interest can also include pursuing cases related to financial regulation, safety, and other matters.

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A public interest litigation attorney usually has substantial training in the area of civil law, with a special focus on situations like class action lawsuits, or cases directly challenging legislation. Some people do this work pro bono, “for the public good,” while working for more general firms. Other people develop public interest litigation careers and work for firms and nonprofits specializing in this type of litigation, providing assistance to people and organizations with legal matters that have a public interest component.

This type of litigation may be a topic of interest in the media. The case can be carefully followed by magazines and newspapers, as well as legal journals interested in the outcome. Members of the public can turn to the news to see what kind of suits courts in their areas are currently hearing. They may also receive class action notification if a case touches upon their lives in some way; for example, people living in a polluted area might be included in a suit seeking damages to compensate for illnesses, birth defects, and other problems.

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