‘The whole point of the law is to have teeth. It is not just about moral persuasion’

Tony Gifford INTERVIEW: ‘The whole point of the law is to have teeth. It is not just about appealing to moral persuasion,’ said Lord Anthony Gifford QC, the co-founder of the first law centre. The veteran human rights lawyer, who moved to Jamaica in 1989, was talking to www.thejusticegap.com.

After more than 50 years at the Bar, Tony Gifford’s biography serves as a pretty comprehensive list of left wing causes célèbres. Notable cases include the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four; he chaired inquiries into Broadwater Farm and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool; and represented the family of James Wray at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. Then there is his international work which includes his involvement in the anti apartheid campaign in South Africa, support for the liberation movement in Mozambique and latterly fighting for peoples’ rights in the Caribbean. The barrister was also founder of the first law centre, North Kensington, which was set up in 1970.

  • You can read the full interview here

Gifford, who is a member of the Doughty Street barristers’ chambers in the UK, set up his firm Gifford Thompson & Bright in 1991 in Kingston. He called the the LASPO cuts of April 2013 ‘appalling’.

‘I am amazed that the attack should come from these Conservatives – for all their faults in the 1970s, they did believe in the rule of law,’ Gifford said. ‘That means people should have access to justice – irrespective of their means. The Legal Aid and Advice Act passed by the Attlee  government in 1949 provided a model scheme. It gave Britain a very good reputation on the international stage in terms of the upholding of justice.’

As founder of the first law centre Tony Gifford was a pioneer in promoting access to justice for the poor and the vulnerable. North Kensington Law Centre opened in 1970 in a butcher’s shop at the north end of Portobello Road and, in doing so, spawned a movement. Some 13 opened between 1973 and 1974 and there were to be more than 60 in total.

‘The idea began with the publication of a pamphlet by the Fabian Society – Justice for all – reporting on the poverty program in the United States and the neighbourhood law firms that have had up there,’ Gifford recalled. ‘We lived in Notting Hill and we can see the needs of the people in North Kensington were crying out to be met.’

Gifford remembered 1970 as being ‘the year of Rachman’, the notorious slum landlord. ‘There was intense racism from the Notting Hill police, poor local authority accommodation and exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The whole point of the law is to have teeth. It is not just about appealing to moral persuasion. It must provide effective remedies through the court system. When the North Kensington law centre started, landlords found that they would evict a tenant in the morning, then have an injunction slapped on them by the afternoon and the tenant could be back by the evening.’

The centre instituted a duty solicitor rota at Notting Hill police station. ‘Someone could be arrested at midnight and an hour later, the lawyer would be knocking on the door of the station,’ he recalls. ‘The very presence of lawyers acted as a deterrent to misbehavior.’

‘The message was very simple: justice is for all – and, in particular, for those with slender means because they are more likely to be exploited. There are simple truths that should be self-evident. Yet they are being questioned by the powers that be.’
Tony Gifford

Working in Jamaica puts the legal aid crisis here into perspective. ‘It is a real education to work in a country where the public resources are so much less per head than they are in an advanced country. To be in a Caribbean country, you see how every public service is under terrible strain – education, health and justice,’ he said; before adding: ‘There is a very dedicated legal profession – and a real desire to see justice done.’

‘There is a legal aid scheme of sorts – but it is minimal,’ the barrister continued. ‘The real legal aid that I depend on in my criminal practice comes from families. There is tremendous solidarity shown by family members, particularly those overseas living in the US.’

Tony Gifford called the Human Rights Act ‘the most progressive and far-reaching piece of legislation passed by Tony Blair’s government’.

The lawyer called the prospect of withdrawing from the European Convention as ‘extraordinary’. ‘We would be putting ourselves on a par with Russia and other countries that want to opt out. For a government meant to stand for the rule of law that would look very bad on the world stage.’

‘We must have access to the courts and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights so as to maintain the standards of human rights which became essential after the disaster of the Second World War.’

‘If you allow popular feeling to go unchecked – and politicians are always encouraged to do a popular thing rather than the right thing – then only effective human rights legislation can stop that.’

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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