In a basement office under the shadow of Grenfell Tower in west London – where discoloured water drips from the ceiling into a plastic bin – lawyers and caseworkers are this month celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first law centre.
Established in July 1970, North Kensington Law Centre pioneered a social justice movement aimed at making the law accessible to everyone. Austerity cuts to legal aid may have restricted its resources but they have not crushed its spirit.
Peter Kandler, a solicitor now aged 85, was the driving force behind its creation. The original office was in an old butcher’s shop on Golborne Road, a street at the top of Portobello Market in west London, now adorned with fashion outlets.
“Meat hooks were still on the wall when we moved in,” recalled Kandler, brimming with reminiscences. “In those days, lawyers were people in suits you were respectful to. We didn’t get anyone through the door for the first day or two.
“Then I put our newspaper cuttings in the window: the Sun had written ‘Poor Law in a Butcher’s Shop’. People realised we were proper lawyers and started coming in droves. We saw more than 200 in the first three weeks.”
The initiative derived from radical ideas Kandler imbibed at the Partisan Coffee House in Soho, then the cultural centre of the New Left. Having begun his legal career in a firm that specialised in probates and trusts, it was for him a “political awakening”.
By the late 1960s, Kandler was running advice stalls for campaign groups and helping Notting Hill residents resist eviction from exploitative landlords like the notorious Peter Rachman. “He offered us three houses at one stage to lay off him,” Kandler remembers.
Among those involved were Michael Zander, formerly professor of law at the LSE and for many years the Guardian’s legal affairs correspondent, and Lord Tony Gifford QC, one of the most prominent advocates of his generation. Zander had returned from studying law centres in the US.
Kandler was one of the first solicitors who insisted on going into police stations to meet clients in an era where, he said, it was common for officers to beat confessions out of suspects – before codes under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 came into force.
“Not only did the police beat you up, they also charged you with assault back then,” Kandler recalls. On one occasion, he says, he secured a client bail by instructing him to show the stipendiary magistrate bruises on his arm, face and chest.
North Kensington’s success was copied widely. At the peak in the 2000s there were more than 70 law centres in the UK; now, following a decade of austerity cuts, there are about 40.
Housing cases, funded by legal aid for those who could not afford an expensive lawyer, remain an area of specialism. The others are immigration and asylum, welfare benefits, employment and criminal defence cases.
The director is Annie Campbell Viswanathan. Her obsession, she confesses, is money – trying to secure sufficient funds to keep the law centre running. A significant portion of her time is spent navigating her way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Legal Aid Agency. Immigration cases, for example, on average cost about £8,000 to run, she estimates, but usually only generate about £5,000 in legal aid payments.
The failure to lift qualifying income thresholds for entitlement to legal aid for decades means that fewer and fewer people qualify for help. Many seeking help are turned away or charged. Like other cash-strapped law centres, North Kensington has itself begun to charge for some immigration work and settlements in employment cases as a means of generating additional income. Last year it brought in £15,000 through charging those who did not qualify for legal aid.
The centre was seeing about 2,500 clients a year pre-lockdown. It has experienced a 25% increase in demand since Covid-19. Each of its 12 staffof solicitors, paralegals and caseworkers usually handle between 50 and 70 cases at any one time.
The more bureaucratic society becomes, the more important it is to be able to challenge decisions, Campbell Viswanathan believes. For example, the list of evidence required for Windrush compensation claims is a severe deterrent. “Some you have to prove to the standard of beyond reasonable doubt, others on the balance of probabilities. How is an ordinary person meant to manage that?”
When she arrived in 2018, she says the centre was at risk of closure partially due to cuts imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which drastically restricted the scope of legal aid, and partially because the Grenfell Tower disaster consumed so much time but resulted in few adequately funded cases.
As legal aid spending has been slashed and councils’ budgets squeezed in the last decade, law centres have had to seek more and more diverse sources from grant-giving organisations to survive.
For years the law centre has provided legal observers for the nearby Notting Hill carnival. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, it has been supporting victims’ families – helping with visas and immigration advice. A few families are still in temporary accommodation.
Adrian Cooper, who has been with the centre for 15 years, specialises in welfare cases. “We win over 90% of our cases we take to tribunals – which shows what the level of decision-making [at the Department for Work and Pensions ] is like.”
Holly Stow, a young paralegal who has just finished her law degree, is leading the centre’s Windrush project, seeking compensation for those affected by the government’s hostile-environment policies. Because they could not prove their nationality status, people who came to Britain decades ago lost jobs, were evicted and were robbed of opportunities they would have otherwise enjoyed. Stow is already handling 35 claims including some brought by those who were deported.
Covid-19 has meant the law centre’s half-century celebrations have been delayed until next year, although an online party was held this month. The pandemic also delivered £60,000 in one-off emergency funding from the Ministry of Justice that recognises the importance of law centres for those most in need.
The law centre says many of its more vulnerable clients are unhappy working online and feel digitally excluded, so it is gradually reopening for face-to-face consultations.
A further consequence of coronavirus is a massive backlog in housing cases. Evictions were suspended during lockdown but there are fears that there will be a surge of litigation. Campbell Viswanathan is trying to recruit another housing solicitor.
“If you don’t have meaningful access to law, you don’t have democracy,” she says. “It’s simply lip service if the only people who can use the law are rich people.
“Law centres have a really important democratic function – holding government to account. We are the A&E of law. We are the people who pitch up when a crisis has occurred.”
North Kensington Law Centre milestones over 50 years
• 17 July 1970: North Kensington Law Centre opens for business in Golborne Road, west London.
• 1975: Given government funding to keep it out of financial difficulties.
• 1981: Fire at Clanricarde Gardens in nearby Notting Hill killed eight migrant workers. Law centre represented their families at inquest and campaigned for improved safety standards.
• 1995: Law centre gave up its pioneering 24-hour emergency helpline service to those detained in police custody. A national network of duty solicitors had been established by the PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) codes.
• 2014: Law centre moved from Golborne Road to Whitchurch Road near Grenfell Tower.
• 14June 2017: Grenfell Tower fire kills 72 people. Law centre supports families seeking accommodation and help.
• 2020: North Kensington Law Centre celebrates its 50th anniversary.
More information at https://nklc.org.uk/history