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The public interest refers to the "common well-being" or "general welfare".[by whom?] The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself. While nearly everyone[who?] claims that aiding the common well-being or general welfare is positive, there is little, if any, consensus on what exactly constitutes the public interest, or whether the concept itself is a coherent one.
According to the Random House Dictionary, Public interest is "1. the welfare or well-being of the general public; commonwealth. 2. appeal or relevance to the general populace: a news story of public interest."
Economist Lok Sang Ho in his Public Policy and the Public Interest (Routledge, 2012, published 2011) argues that the public interest must be assessed impartially and, therefore, defines the public interest as the "ex ante welfare of the representative individual."  Under a thought experiment, by assuming that there is an equal chance for one to be anyone in society and, thus, could benefit or suffer from a change, the public interest is by definition enhanced whenever that change is preferred to the status quo ex ante. This approach is "ex ante", in the sense that the change is not evaluated after the fact but assessed before the fact without knowing whether one would actually benefit or suffer from it.
This approach follows the "veil of ignorance" approach, which was first proposed by John Harsanyi but popularized by John Rawls in his 1971 Theory of Justice. Historically, however, the approach can be traced to John Stuart Mill, who, in his letter to George Grote, explained that "human happiness, even one's own, is in general more successfully pursued by acting on general rules, than by measuring the consequences of each act; and this is still more the case with the general happiness, since any other plan would not only leave everybody uncertain what to expect, but would involve perpetual quarrelling..."
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales argues that applying a detailed definition is likely to result in unintended consequences, in Acting in the Public Interest(2012). Instead, each circumstance needs to be assessed based on criteria such as the relevant public, wants, and constraints. The key to assessing any public interest decision is transparency of the decision making process, including balancing competing interests.
Public interest law
“Public interest law” is a term that became widely adopted in the United States during and after the social turmoil of the 1960s. It built on a tradition exemplified by Louis Brandeis, who before becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice incorporated advocacy for the interests of the general public into his legal practice. In a celebrated 1905 speech, Brandeis decried the legal profession, complaining that “able lawyers have to a large extent allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected their obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people.”  In the late 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of American law school graduates began to seek “relevance” in their work—wishing to have an impact on the social issues that were so visibly and hotly debated within American society at that time. They defined themselves as public interest lawyers in order to distinguish themselves from the “corporate adjuncts” referred to by Brandeis.
Public interest law does not describe a body of law or a legal field; the term was adopted to describe whom the public interest lawyers were representing, rather than what matters they would work on. Instead of representing powerful economic interests, they chose to be advocates for otherwise underrepresented individuals. Consequently, a significant current in public interest lawyering has always emphasized the need to provide legal services to those living in poverty. The term has grown, however, to encompass a broader range of activities of lawyers and non-lawyers working toward a multitude of objectives, including civil rights, civil liberties, women’s rights, consumer rights, environmental protection, and so on. Nevertheless, a common denominator for public interest lawyers in the United States and in a growing number of countries remains the ethic of “fighting for the little guy”—that is, representing the underrepresented and vulnerable segments of society.
Public interest law is institutionalized in the United States. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work to promote and protect human rights using the U.S. legal system, or fight to protect the environment, or advocate on behalf of consumers, call themselves public interest law organizations. A large community of lawyers practices public interest law in the form of providing legal aid free of charge to those who cannot afford to pay for it. Clinical legal education, which is well established in the United States, provides opportunities for law students to do practical legal work on basic legal matters as well as more complex public interest issues, such as women’s rights, antidiscrimination law, constitutional rights, and environmental protection, among others. Some law schools have public interest law centers, which advise law students interested in pursuing public interest law careers. Pro bono programs at bar associations and law firms provide opportunities for commercial lawyers to donate time to public interest law activities.
Summing up the movement's history in the United States, Standford University Law Professor Deborah Rhode writes:"Public interest lawyers have saved lives, protected fundamental rights, established crucial principles, transformed institutions, and ensured essential benefits for those who need them most....In virtually every major American social reform movement of the last half century, [public interest]lawyers have played an important role."
In law, public interest is a defence against certain lawsuits (for instance some libel suits in the United Kingdom) and an exemption from certain laws or regulations (for instance freedom of information laws in the UK). Also, judges in common law systems can make judgements on the grounds of public policy, a related term.
Central and Eastern Europe
At the end of the communist period in the early 1990s, the national legal systems of Central and Eastern Europe were still in a formative stage. The most important source of legal authority for the new human rights groups came from outside the region: the Council of Europe, with its European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights.
Over time, in the mid-1990s, U.S. experiences became more relevant. The Council of Europe's prerequisite that lawyers use their own country's courts first to seek legal remedies before turning to the European bodies gradually became more than a pro forma exercise, and civil society organizations began to make more effective use of domestic means of adjudication. But by the time local activists were ready to consider the utility of impact litigation, test cases, and other tactics familiar from the U.S. experience, they already understood that their ultimate tactical weapon in any piece of litigation was to use the threat or reality of a supportive decision at the European Court of Human Rights. With this background in mind, it made more sense for the promoters of public interest law in Central and Eastern Europe to talk about "strategic litigation" than about public interest litigation. Using the instrumentality of the European Court of Human Rights effectively required a strategic approach. Not all human rights cases were likely to receive a favorable ruling; a negative ruling could produce more damage to the human rights cause than no ruling at all. The European Court had a rich case law that could provide clues to how a future case might be decided, and there were procedural aspects, such as the requirement to exhaust domestic remedies, to consider.
The core lesson from the U.S. experience for local activists was how courts could be used effectively as a tool for civil society engagement in governance.
Public interest law (公益法, pronounced Gong Yi Fa) is an accepted term in China, where the basic institutions supporting the rule of law are still extremely nascent. China does not have a common-law system in which lawyers are expected to play a key role in “making law.” Nevertheless, a small but effective community of lawyers has gained acceptance of public interest litigation as a legitimate means of resolving social issues and contributing to a harmonious society, and non-governmental actors have had a significant impact on improving the enforcement of rights for migrant workers, women, children and those suffering from environmental degradation, among others. For example, public interest lawyers in China have filed lawsuits in court successfully challenging workplace sexual harassment and the involuntary commitment of healthy people to mental hospitals.
Chinese reformers believe that one avenue for speeding the development of public interest law is implementing an associational standing rule by which organizations can instigate lawsuits to protect the interests of its members. Currently, China’s Civil Procedure Law is undergoing revision. One of the proposed amendments would create a form of associational standing. In theory, the new law would give domestic NGOs the power to file lawsuits in their own name on behalf of their members, but the proposed amendment has engendered spirited debate and its fate is unclear.
Public interest & the government
Public interest has been considered as the core of "democratic theories of government” and often paired with two other concepts, "convenience" and "necessity." Public interest, convenience and necessity appear first time in the Transportation Act of 1920 and also appear in the Radio Act of 1927. After that, these three concepts became critical criteria for making communication policies and solving some related disputes.
- Common good
- Condorcet paradox
- National interest
- Pareto optimality
- Radio Act of 1927
- Telecommunications Act of 1996
- Ho, Lok Sang, Public Policy and the Public Interest, Routledge, 2011
- Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Francis E. Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley (ed.), The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XIV - The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873 Part I, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, Vol. XV, p. 762, 1862.
- Scott L. Cummings, The Politics of Pro Bono, 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1, 13-14(2004)
- See Joel F. Handler, Ellen Jane Hollingsworth & Howard S. Erlanger, Lawyers and the Pursuit of Legal Rights 24-39 (1978); Note, The New Public Interest lawyers, 79 Yale L.J. 1069, 1069-70 (1970)
- Scott L. Cummings & Ingrid V. Eagly, After Public Interest Law, NWU L. Rev. 1251, 1251-1259, 2075-2077(2006)
- Deborah L.Rhode, Public Interst Law: the Movement and Midlife, 60 Stan.L.Rev. 1, 13-14 (2004)
- Edwin Rekosh, Constructing Public Interest Law: Transnational Collaboration and Exchange in Central and Eastern Europe, 13 UCLA J. Int'l L.& For. Aff.55, 80-82
- Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2011 Annual Report, Parts II and III (October 10, 2011), available at http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt11/AR2011final.pdf; see generally R.P. Peerenboom, China's Long March toward Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- "Draft limits scale of class-action lawsuits," China Daily, April 24, 2012, available at http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-04/25/content_15131945.htm
- Napoli, Philip M. (2001). Foundations of Communications Policy. Principles and Process in the Regulation of Electronic Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press
Note: This Bibliography is adapted from "Public Interest Law Practice: A Selective Bibliography,"a project of the Public Interest Law Committee at Rutgers School of Law, Newark, compiled by Paul Axel-Lute.
DEFINING PUBLIC INTEREST LAW
- Howard M. Erichson, Doing Good, Doing Well, 57 Vand. L. Rev. 2087-2125 (2004).
- Jeremy Rabkin, Public Interest Law: Is it Law in the "Public Interest"?, 8 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 341-347 (1985).
- Ann Southworth, Conservative Lawyers and the Contest over the Meaning of "Public Interest Law", 52 UCLA L. Rev. 1223-1278 (2005).
- Patricia M. Wald, Whose Public Interest Is It Anyway: Advice for Altruistic Young Lawyers, 47 Me. L. Rev. 3-33 (1995).
HISTORY OF THE PUBLIC INTEREST LAW MOVEMENT
- Nan Aron, Liberty and Justice for All : Public Interest Law in the 1980s and Beyond (Westview Press, 1989, 166 p) KF390.5.P78 A96 1989.
- Balancing the Scales of Justice: Financing Public Interest Law in America: A Report by the Council for Public Interest Law (1976, 361 p. & appendices) KF 299.P8C6 1976 Includes A History of Public Interest Law, at 17-76, and The World of Public Interest Law Today, at 77-161.
- Bringing Justice to the People: The Story of the Freedom-Based Public Interest Law Movement / edited by Lee Edwards (Heritage Books, 2004, 218 p.) KF 390.5.P78 B74.
- Gordon Harrison & Sanford M. Jaffe, The Public Interest Law Firm; New Voices For New Constituencies (Ford Foundation, 1973, 40 p.) KF299.P8 H37 Edited version of article originally published at 58 ABA J. 459-467 (1972).
- Sanford M. Jaffe, Public Interest Law : Five Years Later (American Bar Association, Special Committee on Public Interest Practice, 1976, 52 p.) KF299.P8 J3.
- F. Raymond Marks, The Lawyer, The Public, and Professional Responsibility (American Bar Foundation, 1972, 305 p.) KF 299.P8M3
- Felice Batlan, The Ladies' Health Protective Association: Lay Lawyers and Urban Cause Lawyering, 41 Akron L. Rev. 701-732 (2008).
- Edward Berlin, Anthony Z. Roisman, & Gladys Kessler, Public Interest Law, 38 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 674-693 (1970).
- Susan D. Carle, Re-Envisioning Models for Pro Bono Lawyering: Some Historical Reflections, 9 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 81-96 (2001)
- Richard Frank, The Public Interest Lawyer, 7 J. Int'l L. & Econ. 180-186 (1972).
- Charles R. Halpern & John M. Cunningham, Reflections on the New Public Interest Law: Theory and Practice at the Center for Law and Social Policy, 59 Geo. L. J. 1095-1126 (1971). Includes Appendix B: Nader v. Volpe: A Case Study, at 1122-26.
- Judith Kilpatrick, Race Expectations: Arkansas African-American Attorneys (1865- 1950), 9 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 63-79 (2001).
- Ralph Nader, Keynote Address, 40 San Diego L. Rev. 7-18 (2003) (part of symposium, Summit: Taking the Offensive).
- Karen O'Connor & Lee Epstein, Rebalancing the Scales of Justice: Assessment of Public Interest Law. 7 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol'y 483-505 (1984). Includes history of both liberal & conservative public interest law groups.
- David P. Riley, Challenge of the New Lawyers: Public Interest and Private Clients, 38 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 546-587 (1970).
- Francis B. Stevens & John L. Maxey, John L. II, Representing the Unrepresented: A Decennial Report on Public-Interest Litigation in Mississippi, 44 Miss. L. J. 333-390 (1973).
GLOBALIZATION OF PUBLIC INTEREST LAW
- Scott L. Cummings, The Future of Public Interest Law, UC Los Angeles: UCLA School of Law (2011). Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0nq3n6q3.
- Edwin Rekosh, Kyra A. Buchko, and Vessela Terzieva, eds., Pursuing the Public Interest: A Handbook for Legal Professionals and Activists, PILnet (then Public Interest Law Institute), New York (2001). Retrieved from http://pilnet.org/public-interest-law-resources/35-pursuing-the-public-interest-a-handbook-for-legal.html. Synthesizes experiences of public interest advocates in former socialist countries.