Fifty Years On: An Old Hack Looks Back

Sir Stephen Sedley was called to the Bar in 1964, and was briefed regularly by North Kensington Law Centre from its foundation to represent local tenants. He was one of the founders of the Public Law Project. He became a QC in 1983, and in 1992 a judge of the High Court and then the Court of Appeal. In this guest blog he reflects on and celebrates early memories of North Kensington Law Centre.

When the Law Centre was founded in 1970, I had been a barrister for little more than five years. But because my father, Bill Sedley, had been what was called a Poor Man’s Lawyer in Bow in the 1930s and was one of the few people who understood the Rent Acts, it was assumed by Peter Kandler and his colleagues that by some form of osmosis I could be trusted to handle the Centre’s landlord and tenant work. My chambers clerk didn’t like the sound of it at all, but it was better than nothing.

And so began a flow of briefs, usually marked “Legal Aid”, sometimes marked “No fee”, and all of them, regardless of the issues, reading:  “Counsel will see the facts germane from the enclosures and will do his/her best on behalf of the client”. If you were lucky, a witness statement and even the odd document would be enclosed.

Two North Ken cases stick in my memory.

In one, we had to take Judge Llewellyn to see a letting because he refused to believe our client’s evidence that there was a gap you could put your fist through between the window frame and the brickwork. On the way there, the judge (who had apparently never visited the area over which he had jurisdiction) looked out of the car window and said “Where is this? Brixton?” 

Back at Bloomsbury County Court, while he was getting robed again, his usher, an old seaman, came into court and said sotto voce “You’ve won, Mr Sedley. Judge couldn’t believe his bleeding eyes.”

Another time, I had to tell our client that she had no defence to her landlord’s claim for possession because her room was a furnished letting and she had been given a valid notice to quit. I asked her for authority to negotiate what terms I could for her.

“No,” she said, “It’s all right. We’re going to win.”

“No,” I said, “We’ve got no defence. We’re going to lose.”

“No,” she said, “I’ve been to the fortune-teller. We’re going to win.”

I shrugged and went into court. The landlord’s solicitor, whose only task was to prove service of the notice to quit, took the oath and produced a top copy of the notice (this was in the days of typewriters, which only very old lawyers now remember). For want of anything sensible to put to him, I asked him if he always filed the top copy and served the carbon. He fainted. When he came round he withdrew the claim.

“I told you so, said our client.”

It’s also perhaps worth recording that the Centre played a significant role in the modern rediscovery and development of public law. We started getting cases which involved nothing contractual or tortious but rather failures of public officials and authorities to act lawfully. Nothing in the law syllabus had prepared us for this, but by rootling around in constitutional law we dusted off the old prerogative writs of certiorari, mandamus and prohibition. When a local rent officer refused to adjourn a hearing at the request of a sick tenant, we went tremulously before the lord chief justice, who in those days took the entire Crown Office list on a Wednesday morning, to ask for the decision to be quashed and retaken. Against us was the formidable Treasury Devil, Nigel Bridge, who to our amazement rose to his feet and conceded that there had been a denial of natural justice.  After that, the going got tougher, but so did the Law Centre.

It’s cheering that, in spite of everything, we’re able to celebrate the first half-century of the first of Britain’s law centres. Some of us have wandered off down byways, and some have gone the way of all flesh, but the Centre has fought on. I salute it and all who work in it.

About the Author 

Stephen Sedley was called to the Bar in 1964, and was briefed regularly by North Kensington Law Centre from its foundation to represent local tenants. He was one of the founders of the Public Law Project. He became a QC in 1983, and in 1992 a judge of the High Court and then the Court of Appeal. When he retired in 2011 he became a visiting professor at Oxford. 

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