Remembering Mahatma Gandhi on Advocates’ Day
Mahatma Gandhi’s had intimate knowledge of the legal system in three countries – England, South Africa and India. He studied law in England and practiced it for more than two decades mostly in South Africa. After he came back to India and plunged into the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi was often accused by the colonial government for his strong writings as a journalist and editor of Young India, Navajivan and Harijan and also because of his Satyagraha movements. He suffered prison terms in South Africa and India for his social and political activities. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi’s perspectives on law and lawyers were not only derived from his experiences as a lawyer but also as an accused person.
Gandhiji was critical about Indian court system because he believed that it was extremely expensive and therefore only rich people could benefit from it. The poor were totally alienated from the system and were made miserable by it. He felt terrible that lawyers charge exorbitantly high fees from their clients without looking at their poverty. According to him “Legal practice is not — ought not to be — a speculative business. The best legal talent must be available to the poorest at reasonable rates.”
In his weekly journal, Young India dated October 6, 1920, Gandhi warned that law courts in India are most extravagantly run and “bears no relation to the general economic condition of the people.” This remains vastly true even today. Right from his days of early practice Gandhiji used to prefer bringing both sides together to discuss and resolve their problems amicably rather than fight expensive court cases. As far back as 1909, Gandhi criticised lawyers in his book, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, for encouraging litigations and prolonging them. He wanted lawyers to promote reconciliation and not acrimony between parties.
In his own practice he was adhered strongly to truth to the extent that clients would sometimes take their cases to other lawyers who were not all that scrupulous. Gandhiji developed a manner of practice in which he tried to put each and every fact of the case, including the facts that might go against his client before the court and allow the court to decide. In one civil suit which Gandhiji had already won, he later discovered that there were some miscalculations in the amounts because of which his opponent would have to bear losses. He discussed the matter with his client and convinced him that it would be wrong to profit from such mistakes. Later he himself brought the matter before the court. There are many such examples from his practice, in which he tried to uphold truth and justice above winning a case and making a profit. He said, “The duty of a lawyer is always to place before the judges, and to help them to arrive at, the truth, never to prove the guilty as innocent.”
Another aspect of Gandhiji’s lawyering was his insistence on simplicity. He would draft his petitions in clear and simple language and urged others to do so. He did not want the matter to be hidden in convoluted language so that everyone reading it could either be confused or arrive at multiple interpretations.
It is the same love of truth that we see in Gandhiji’s attitude towards the courts when he appears before it as an accused. In 1919 Mahatma Gandhi wrote an article in Young India condemning the actions of a District Judge of Ahmedabad who had written a letter to the High Court Bombay about the two lawyers who had signed a pledge of civil disobedience. The Registrar of the High Court referred the matter for contempt of court and the High Court took cognizance of the matter. Notices were issued to Mahatma Gandhi and Mahadev Desai asking them to show cause why proceedings should not be initiated against them. Gandhiji appeared in person in this matter and put his arguments before the court. In this case the High Court expected Gandhiji to apologise but he refused. He said that he was not apologetic about what he had written and was ready to face the consequences. The court held him guilty of contempt of court and reprimanded him. (1920) 22 BOMLR 368, 58 Ind Cas 915)
For Gandhiji justice was not relegated to the courts but it permeated every aspect of life. That is why he urged lawyers to treat their profession with dignity and not extract high fees from their clients to maintain exorbitant lifestyles. He wanted lawyers to see law as a means of public service. Ultimately, for Gandhiji law and courts were important but he considered the court of conscience to be higher than the courts of law. “Court of conscience supersedes all other courts,” was his maxim. Civil disobedience or Satyagraha against an unjust government was considered by Gandhiji to be an “expression of highest form of law.”
On Advocates’ Day it would not be out of place to ponder over Mahatma Gandhi’s observations some of which remains pertinent to the present day.
- Kalyan Kumar and Adv. Paromita Goswami