People know Mahatma Gandhi as a political leader, but few people know about his law practice in South Africa for 20 years. I may mention about one of his earliest cases in Pretoria,when he had just started law practice, as a young man in his early 20s.
The case was a civil dispute between two businessmen of Indian origin settled in South Africa and doing business there, Dada Abdullah and Tyeb Seth. Gandhiji was the lawyer for Dada Abdullah.
I may now continue this narrative in Gandhiji's own words, in his book ' The Story of my Experiments with Truth ' :
" I saw that the facts of Dada Abdullah's case made it very strong indeed. But I also saw that the litigation, if persisted, would financially ruin both sides, who were relatives, and belonged to the same city. No one knew how long the case might go on.
I approached Tyeb Seth, and advised him to go for arbitration. I recommended him to see his counsel, and suggested that if an arbitrator enjoying the confidence of both parties were appointed, the case would quickly finish. The lawyers' fees were so rapidly mounting that they would devour the financial resources of both litigants, even though they were big merchants. Moreover, the case occupied so much of their time that they had no time left for any other work. In the meantime, mutual ill will was steadily increasing
I became disgusted with the legal profession. 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 Seth agreed. An arbitrator was appointed, the case was argued before him, and Dada Abdullah won.
But that did not satisfy me. If my client were to seek immediate execution of the award, it would be impossible for Tyeb Seth to pay the whole of the awarded amount, and there was an unwritten law among the Porbander Memons living in South Africa that death should be preferred to bankruptcy.
It was impossible for Tyeb Seth to immediately pay the whole sum awarded, but he meant to pay not a pie less, and he did not want to be declared bankrupt.
There was only one way. Dada Abdullah ( Gandhiji's client ) should allow him to pay in moderate instalments. He was equal to the occasion, and granted Tyeb Seth instalments spread over a very long period. It was more difficult for me to secure this concession ( from Dada Abdullah ) than to get the parties to agree to arbitration. But both were happy over the result, and both rose in the public esteem.
My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. 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 in hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby, not even money, certainly not my soul. "