Although legal aid was introduced in 1945 its provision was extremely limited in its first two decades. It tended to be available only for personal injury claims and very serious criminal matters. Social welfare, housing, immigration and the like were all outside its scope, as were more minor criminal offences.
Citizens Advice Bureaux and similar organisations did exist but, perhaps due to a perception that its volunteers were judgmental and out-of-touch, the voluntary advice sector was an under-used resource.
Typically, law firms in London were located in the wealthier parts of the city. In 1974 1,000 of London’s 1,600 solicitors’ firms were based in Holborn, the City or the West End. In Brixton, one of London’s poorest areas, there were only four firms that accepted legal aid work. North Kensington was another deprived area of London. High levels of migration, particularly from the West Indies, into a historically poor white community, led to overcrowding and heightened racial tensions.
Racism was endemic in the police and judiciary and, according to Peter Kandler, one of the founders of North Kensington Law Centre, framing and corruption were commonplace. Kandler had learned his politics in the basement café, the Partizan in Soho. Seeing the poverty and iniquity on the ground in areas like North Kensington, Kandler decided, on the encouragement of Chuck Taylor, to take practical action and try to grow the movement from a grassroots level.
It was against this backdrop that North Kensington Law Centre was founded on 17th July 1970 in an old butcher’s shop on Goldbourne Road. The staff consisted of Kandler, his articled clerk James Saunders (see here for an interview with James) and a receptionist. This was a watershed moment: a new system of legal service provision had been conceived. Unsurprisingly for an area with a high black population and a racist, corrupt police force, the community initially reacted suspiciously to the law centre.
In many residents’ view the law was an instrument to harm, not to help.
‘There are two standards of law, one for the rich and one for the poor. We give first place to the poor client.’
Peter Kandler talking in the World in Action: The Law Shop documentary, 1974
- Jon Robins on North Kensington Law Centre’s response to the Grenfell fire for the Guardan: Underfunded and overstretched: the lawyers fighting for justice for Grenfell
- Also, Oliver Lewis on Radical lawyers, law centres and an uncertain future
‘We’re trying to lose the aura of respectability’
These predispositions were what Peter Kandler, and founders of the 26 other law centres that sprung up in the poorest areas of the country in the 1970s, had to overcome. The NKLC initially struggled to entice people through the doors, but an ingenious idea to put newspaper clippings about cases that the centre staff had fought in the window changed things drastically. That tactic helped the centre to see over 200 clients during its first three weeks.
James Saunders, now of Saunders Law, said that he and his colleagues wanted to be seen not as lawyers but as members of the community with a peculiar skill. Just as a greengrocers or a fish-and-chip shop brings a community together, that’s what a law centre would do. The perception of solicitors was that they were white, upper- and middle-class and had little in common with the most disadvantaged clients that they represented: ‘we’re trying to, in a way, lose the aura of respectability. There’s nothing wrong with being respectable, but it puts people off. They feel inferior. They want to call me ‘sir’ sometimes – terrible thing really.’
It was this new, laid-back and less traditional approach that allowed law centres to flourish and differentiate themselves from other advice services such as CABs.
Unsurprisingly the road was not without obstacles, the biggest of which was funding. As has been the case throughout the movement’s nearly 40-year history, funding was a constant worry for those running the law centres in the early days. Peter Kandler recalls that in the first five years the North Kensington Law Centre was ‘always going broke’. Initially the centre was funded by private donations, but everyone involved knew that this couldn’t last forever. Eventually the situation became so desperate that the centre wrote to the local authority to request funding. Sir Mulbery Crofton, the then-head of the Tory Kensington & Chelsea council, replied saying that the authority would be more than happy to lend money to the centre on the proviso that Kandler and two of his close associates on the management committee resigned from their posts. The centre responded by publishing this correspondence in the local press and raised almost £12,000, which kept the centre open until Labour won the 1974 general election.
During the Labour administration between 1974-79, law centre funding was much more secure and, as a result, the number of centres in the UK nearly doubled from 14 in 1974 to 27 in 1978. Without the threat of government interference, for the first time law centres could ‘relax’ and focus on their mission.
One thing that needed to be addressed was the racism, violence and corruption that occurred regularly in police stations in the early 1970s. Incidents where the police would beat up a black man and then arrest him for assault or obstruction were common.
‘There used to be a police station in the Latimer road area, Notting Dale Police station it was called. The locals used to say that they could hear people being beaten up [in the station]’ Kandler recalls. After the North Kensington Law Centre was founded, Kandler and other law centre staff attended police stations to prevent such outrages. For the first time legal services were available to people, including the poorest in society, 24 hours a day.
The services offered by law centres were not limited strictly to advice. Alongside traditional legal services the centres were also involved in outreach initiatives and grassroots activism. In terms of outreach into the community a Welsh law centre rode round the countryside in a bus, giving advice on the top deck and using the bottom deck as a makeshift waiting room.
In a similar vein North Kensington Law Centre employed professional actors to play the roles of landlords and the police in skits that highlighted housing and criminal issues to a wider audience. After the performance law centre staff were on hand to field questions and give advice to anyone present. It is a shame that calls for a legal literacy scheme, which sought to empower people by increasing their understanding of their rights, has been consistently ignored for almost four decades since it was first mooted.
Action-oriented and street-wise
It was inventive tactics like these that allowed law centres to differentiate themselves from private practice and the stuffy and white-collar reputation that came with them. This departure from the traditional way in which legal services were delivered was key to allowing the centres to win the trust of local people that, in turn, allowed them to flourish. According to a pamphlet published by the Society of Labour Lawyers in 1976: ‘Lawyers in the centres have a greater awareness of the problems of the poor and they have a commitment to solving their problems [than lawyers from private practice].’ That claim was substantiated by a survey undertaken by the Consumers’ Association in 2000 into the experience of particularly vulnerable users of legal aid services: law centre lawyers were found to be ‘action-oriented and street-wise’ and clearly understood the needs of their clients.
Many law centres were also heavily involved with activist causes that were close to the hearts of their communities. For example, the law centres in Hillingdon and Camden were heavily involved in grassroots activism relating sex discrimination issues in the 1980s. Likewise, the North Lambeth Law Centre focused much of its attention on housing law, using a public enquiry and large scale opposition to ensure that social housing was included in a commercial property project.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the election of the Thatcher’s government would signal the end of the law centre movement. While it is true that the centres’ funding was threatened, the extent of the cuts to legal aid under Thatcher pales in comparison to those that have taken place since. However, the Thatcher government did effect one significant and detrimental change to the direction in which free legal services were headed.
Under the Labour administration of 1974-79 there had been a general movement towards a centralised network of law centres comparable to the system of neighbourhood law centres that existed in the USA. Thatcher did not look at law centres with the disdain that many expected, but her approach to legal aid was one of complete disregard . Advice centres were heavily funded while law centres were overlooked entirely, perhaps with the misplaced belief that, without central funding, this new system would diminish and disappear.
The Conservative government decided to delegate funding decisions to local authorities. This led to a patchwork approach, where law centres would subsist in areas where local councils deemed them valuable. In other areas local authorities cut or threatened to cut funding, leading to holes in the provision of access to justice.
The effects of Thatcher’s decision to avoid a centrally funded network of law centres are still being felt. In Brent, traditionally a labour authority, the law centre has merged with Citizens Advice, leaving it a shadow of the aggressive and direct Brent Law Centre of the past.
Plainly access to justice did not emerge from 11 years of Thatcherism unscathed. The provision of legal aid had been steadily increasing throughout the 1970s and 80s until 1986. Then came the first major cut. As has been the case so many times since, the cut was not based upon a cost-benefit analysis, but rather was the result of a lazy assumption that the only way to reform an apparently expensive and inefficient system was to make cuts. As ever, the poorest in society suffered.
It is a sad reality that this approach to legal aid has been adopted by both Labour and Conservative governments in the two decades since.
This bleak situation is only likely to get worse if a ‘hard Brexit’ leaves the UK as a laissez-faire dystopia. This would inevitably lead to more and more people needing accessible justice in the face of weaker employment rights, abusive landlords, violent partners or arbitrary benefit assessments. Legal aid is stretched to breaking point, while its pillars of support are being strained – leaving accessible justice dangerously susceptible to a disastrous implosion. Against such a harrowing backdrop exacerbated by a government that is at best apathetic and at worst malicious, the need for community-led accessible justice is stronger than ever. Despite overwhelming odds, community legal centres are still standing defiantly in their mission to empower the communities they serve.
A version of this article first appeared in Socialist Lawyer, February 2018