The year's stay in Pretoria was a most valuable experience in my life. Here it was that I had opportunities of learning public work and acquired some measure of my capacity for it. Here it was that the religious spirit within me became a living force, and here too I acquired a true knowledge of legal practice. Here I learnt the things that a junior barrister learns in a senior barrister's chamber, and here I also gained confidence that I should not after all fail as a lawyer. It was likewise here that I learnt the secret of success as a lawyer.
Dada Abdulla's was no small case. The suit was for £40,000. Arising
out of business transactions, it was full of intricacies of
accounts. Part of the claim was based on promissory notes, and part
on the specific performance of promise to deliver promissory notes.
The defence was that the promissory notes were fraudulently taken
and lacked sufficient consideration. There were numerous points of
fact and law in this intricate case.
Both parties had engaged the best attorneys and counsel. I thus had
a fine opportunity of studying their work. The preparation of the
plaintiff's case for the attorney and the sorting of facts in
support of his case had been entrusted to me. It was an education to
see how much the attorney accepted, and how much he rejected from my
preparation, as also to see how much use the counsel made of the
brief prepared by the attorney. I saw that this preparation for the
case would give me a fair measure of my powers of comprehension and
my capacity for marshalling evidence.
I took the keenest interest in the case. Indeed I threw myself into
it. I read all the papers pertaining to the transactions. My client
was a man of great ability and reposed absolute confidence in me,
and this rendered my work easy. I made a fair study of book-keeping.
My capacity for translation was improved by having to translate the
correspondence, which was for the most part in Gujarati.
Although, as I have said before, I took a keen interest in religious
communion and in public work and always gave some of my time to
them, they were not then my primary interest. The preparation of the
case was my primary interest. Reading of law and looking up law
cases, when necessary, had always a prior claim on my time. As a
result, I acquired such a grasp of the facts of the case as perhaps
was not possessed even by the parties themselves, inasmuch as I had
with me the papers of both the parties.
I recalled the late Mr. Pincutt's advice – facts are three-fourths
of the law. At a later date it was amply borne out by that famous
barrister of South Africa, the late Mr. Leonard. In a certain case
in my charge I saw that, though justice was on the side of my
client, the law seemed to be against him. In despair I approached
Mr. Leonard for help. He also felt that the facts of the case were
very strong. He exclaimed, 'Gandhi, I have learnt one thing, and it
is this, that if we take care of the facts of a case, the law will
take care of itself. Let us dive deeper into the facts of this
case.' With these words he asked me to study the case further and
then see him again. On a re-examination of the facts I saw them in
an entirely new light, and I also hit upon an old South African case
bearing on the point. I was delighted and went to Mr. Leonard and
told him everything, 'Right,' he said, 'we shall win the case. Only
we must bear in mind which of the judges takes it.'
When I was making preparation for Dada Abdulla's case, I had not
fully realized this paramount importance of facts. Facts mean truth,
and once we adhere to truth, the law comes to our aid naturally. I
saw that the facts of Dada Abdulla's case made it very strong
indeed, and that the law was bound to be on his side. But I also saw
that the litigation, if it were persisted in, would ruin
the plaintiff and the defendant, who were relatives and both
belonged to the same city. No one knew how long the case might go
on. Should it be allowed to continue to be fought out in court, it
might go on indefinitely and to no advantage of either party. Both,
therefore, desired an immediate termination of the case, if
I approached Tyeb Sheth and requested and advised him to go to
arbitration. I recommended him to see his counsel. I suggested to
him that, if an arbitrator commanding the confidence of both parties
could appointed, the case would be quickly finished. The lawyers'
fees were so rapidly mounting up that they were enough to devour all
the resources of the clients, big merchants as they were. The case
occupied so much of their attention that they had no time left for
any other work. In the meantime mutual ill-will was steadily
increasing. I became disgusted with the profession. As lawyers the
counsel on both sides were bound to rake up points of law in support
of their own clients. I also saw for the first time that the winning
party never recovers all the costs incurred. Under the Court Fees
Regulation there was a fixed scale of costs to be allowed as between
party and party, the actual costs as between attorney and client
being very much higher. This was more than I could bear. I felt that
my duty was to befriend both parties and bring them together. I
strained every nerve to bring about a compromise. At last Tyeb Sheth
agreed. An arbitrator was appointed, the case was argued before him,
and Dada Abdulla won.
But that did not satisfy me. If my client were to seek immediate
execution of the award, it would be impossible for Tyeb Sheth to
meet the whole of the awarded amount, and there was an unwritten law
among the Porbandar Memans living in South Africa that death should
be preferred to bankruptcy. It was impossible for Tyeb Sheth to pay
down the whole sum of about £37,000 and costs. He meant to pay not
a pie less than the amount, and he did not want to be declared
bankrupt. There was only one way. Dada Abdulla should allow him to pay in
moderate installments. He was equal to the occasion, and granted Tyeb
Sheth installments spread over a very long period. It was more
difficult for me to secure this concession of payment by installments
than to get the parties to agree to arbitration. But both were happy
over the result, and both rose in the public estimation. My joy was
boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to
find out the better side of human nature and to enter men's hearts.
I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties
riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a
large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a
lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of
hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby - not even money,
certainly not my soul.