Born on 27 December, 1927, in Nairobi, Kenya, Kapila Hingorani studied law at the University College Cardiff in UK and qualified as a Barrister from the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn.

In 1961, she settled down in Delhi and began practising in the Supreme Court.

In 1979, she and her husband came across two articles published in The Indian Express by K F Rustamji, then a member of the National Police Commission.

The articles were based on information Rustamji had gathered from 19 undertrials languishing in the district jails of Patna and Muzaffarpur in Bihar and the inhumane living conditions.

These undertrials “had been in jail awaiting trial for periods that were longer than the time they have spent had they been charged, tried, convicted and given maximum punishment for the offence”.

As lawyers of the SC, Hingorani and her husband wanted to represent these prisoners, but were constrained because they didn’t have power of attorney and weren’t their ‘next of kin’.

Nonetheless, they proceeded with filing a habeas corpus petition on 11 January, 1979, on behalf of the prisoners under Article 32 of the Constitution. At the time, the Supreme Court rules did not permit the filing of a habeas corpus petition based on newspaper reports.

On 22 January, 1979, judges on the SC bench, who were convinced by the gravity of the situation presented in Rutamji’s articles, issued a notice to the Bihar Government.

After hearing intense arguments from both sides, a Supreme Court bench led by Justices P N Bhagwati arrived at a judgement on 9 March, 1979.

In an article for a book titled ‘Punishment and the Prison: Indian and International Perspectives’, Kapila Hingroani wrote, “While all the above named undertrial prisoners were released on their personal bond without any monetary obligation…the Court…went on to read a right to speedy trial as being implicit in the right to life and personal liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution.”

The court also relied on the “Directive Principles of State Policy contained in Article 39A to hold that every accused who was unable to engage a lawyer and secure legal services on account of reasons of poverty or indigence had a right to a lawyer at state expense”.

Kapila Hingorani would go on to file a series of petitions on the plight of such prisoners languishing in jail without trial. She brought eight State Governments before the Supreme Court.

Eventually, according to Hingorani, “Hussainara Khatoon’s case resulted in the release, though interim orders, of about 40,000 undertrial prisoners out of the estimated 1,20,000 undertrials throughout the country within four months of the filing of the first petition”.

In addition to winning these cases, she also brought into existence a revolution in the Indian legal system, popularly known today as Public Interest Litigations (PILs).

In her words, the Hussainara Khatoon case “made the highest court of the land accessible to the most impoverished” for the first time.

Until her demise in 2013, Kapila Hingorani, along with her husband Nirmal, took up almost 100 PIL cases pro bono, providing relief to millions of people.

Some of her cases  resulted in landmark policy decisions as well. In 1981, she filed a petition on behalf of 11 victims of dowry-related crimes, which resulted in the Supreme Court setting up special police cells to investigate crimes against women.

She was even part of the Ministry of Health committee that helped draft the law to ban sex determination tests that often resulted in female foeticide.

Hingorani passed away on 30 December, 2013, but her legacy remains cemented as the “Mother of Public Interest Litigation”.

In 2017, Kapila Hingorani became the first woman lawyer to have her portrait unveiled in the Supreme Court library. Despite her legacy as a soldier of justice, the tool she used to help the poor and marginalised, PILs, has lost much of its sheen.

With the emergence of PILs came a Supreme Court which went much above its remit resulting in “a self-conscious departure from the very fundamental principles of modern law,” according to legal scholar Anuj Bhuwania in his book ‘Courting the People’.