New Delhi, Oct 2 (PTI) Citing Mahatma Gandhi’s pro bono work for indentured labourers in South Africa on his 152th birth anniversary on Saturday, President Ram Nath Kovind urged senior advocates to follow the Father of the Nation and spare some time to offer legal services to the poor.

Speaking at the launch of a six-week-long 'Pan India Legal Awareness and Outreach Campaign' of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) here, President Kovind also said the country should aim to move from “women development” to “women-led” development.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana, who spoke ahead of the President, termed ‘vibrant judiciary” as essential for a “healthy democracy” and sought “cooperation and support” of the government for ensuring access to justice, strengthening democracy in the country and also in clearing names for appointment of judges in higher judiciary.

The CJI also said the constitutional guarantee of equal justice will be rendered meaningless if vulnerable sections cannot enforce their rights and that the sustainable and inclusive growth cannot be achieved without providing “inclusive access to justice” especially to the poor.

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said speedy and affordable delivery of justice is the "legitimate expectation" of the people and different organs of the State have a collective responsibility to ensure this.

President Kovind made a reference to Mahatma Gandhi in his address and said he did a lot of pro bono work to help the poor, and that indentured labourers in South Africa looked up to him for taking up with the authorities and in the courts their cause without charging any fees.

Kovind urged senior advocates to follow the Father of the Nation whose birth anniversary was chosen by the NALSA to launch its six-week-long legal awareness campaign organised as part of the 'Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav' to commemorate 75 years of India's Independence.

He said senior lawyers should earmark some time for rendering pro bono legal services to the people from the weaker sections.

Justice UU Lalit, the senior most judge and executive chairman of NALSA, urged senior lawyers to offer legal aid pro-bono in at least three cases per year as it would instil faith in the legal aid seekers.

Kovind said Mahatma Gandhi is a symbol of service to humanity, including services to help the downtrodden get justice, and complimented NALSA for launching this awareness drive on Gandhi Jayanti.

He said that more than 125 years ago, Gandhi ji had set certain examples which are relevant to the entire legal fraternity even today.

"In his first major case in South Africa, Gandhi ji suggested the parties seek a compromise out of court. The parties agreed on an arbitrator who heard the case and decided in favour of Gandhi ji's client. This resulted in a heavy financial burden on the other party. Gandhi ji convinced his own client to permit the losing party to make payments in easy instalments over a very extended period.

"Consequently both the parties felt relieved by that settlement. Prior to the settlement, the cost of litigation was harming both the parties. That experience reinforced Gandhi ji's opinion that out-of-court settlements were preferable to litigation," the President said.

President Kovind, who was the chief guest at the event, also touched upon issues relating to women development.

"As a country, our aim is to graduate from 'women development' to 'women-led development'. Therefore, increasing the number of women in National Legal Services Institutions is as important as reaching out to the largest possible number of women beneficiaries." Kovind said there are about 11,000 women lawyers among over 47,000 panel advocates at the district level and about 17,000 women paralegal volunteers out of the total number of nearly 44,000.

The president said he has been told that NALSA is making efforts to be more inclusive in the engagement of advocates and paralegal volunteers.

Kovind said India's freedom struggle was led by many great lawyers who also strived to make the society more progressive. They envisioned a society based on Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

"These fundamental principles have been enshrined in our Constitution. Since Independence, we have made substantial progress in realizing our constitutional goals, but a lot of work remains to be done to reach the destinations identified by our founding fathers." In his brief address, the CJI referred to the challenges such as pendency of cases, its rise due to the Covid-19 pandemic, huge vacancies in judiciary and the efforts made by the collegium headed by him since he assumed charge as head of the judiciary on April 24 this year.

Justice Ramana, who has been actively recommending names for appointment of judges in higher judiciary, said the apex court collegium has recommended 106 names for high court judges and expected that the government will clear them and this would take care of pendency to “some extent”.

“For a healthy democracy, a vibrant judiciary is essential. Covid-19 has created many problems for many institutions including the judiciary. Thousands of cases have accumulated in different fora. Apart from large vacancies, the non-working of Courts and lack of virtual conferencing facilities in rural areas, the pandemic has exposed some deep rooted problems." "My companion judges and I have attempted to enable litigants to get faster justice. I want to state that, since May onwards, my team so far has recommended appointment of 106 Judges and 9 new Chief Justices to various High Courts.

“The Government has cleared 7 names out of the 106 judges and 1 out of the 9 Chief Justices, so far. I expect that the Government will clear the rest of the names very soon. These appointments will take care of pendency to some extent. I seek the cooperation and support of the Government to enable access to justice and to strengthen democracy,” he said.

Justice Ramana said it is an undeniable truth that only inclusive growth can lead to a sustainable and vibrant democracy and inclusive and sustainable growth would be impossible to attain without providing inclusive access to justice.

In his address, Rijiju also stressed on the need for strengthening the legal education system in the country.

"I would like to remind us all that the speedy and affordable delivery of justice is the legitimate expectation of the people and is the collective responsibility of the different organs of the State," the minister said, adding it is important that all stakeholders work together to "deliver this mandate".

The minister said that access to justice has been recognised as the integral part of the legal framework prescribed under the Constitution and to achieve and realise this vision, better collaboration between the legal services authority, various departments of the government and the judiciary will be needed.

He also said efforts should be made to ensure that mediation becomes the preferred mode of deciding commercial disputes as this will lessen the burden on courts and bring investments in the country, leading to ease of doing business and ease of living.

Referring to the concept of internship in medical colleges, Justice Lalit said on those lines, the law students can be asked to offer legal services to the poor in the remote parts of the country.

“I am already in touch with the Bar Council of India people and they have assured us that perhaps, I think all law colleges would be extending this kind of support,” Justice Lalit said.