North Ken Law Centre: 50 years young

In this guest piece, Michael Zander QC, Emeritus Professor, LSE writes of his involvement in what led to the setting up of law centres. Michael Zander QC taught at the London School of Economics (1963-98), was The Guardian’s Legal Correspondent from 1963-88 and in 2015 was awarded the Halsbury Legal Award for Lifetime Contribution.

In 1966, during a visit to the U.S., I was impressed with the neighbourhood law firms that had been set up all over the country under President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Office of Economic Opportunity had made legal services for the poor one of its programmes. The budget in 1966 was a modest $20m. (It later grew considerably.) I wrote about it in Socialist Commentary in September 1966, proposing that lawyers paid out of public funds in poverty areas should be an additional part of our legal aid scheme. 

The Society of Labour Lawyers set up a committee under Morris Finer QC to investigate further. I was a member of that Committee and mainly wrote the report, Justice for All, which was published as a Fabian pamphlet (Research Series 273) in December 1968. When the Labour Lawyers presented the draft report at its Oxford conference that summer, Mr Seton Pollock, the Law Society’s official in charge of legal aid, spoke strongly against the idea of publicly funded salaried lawyers. But two years later at the opening of the first law centre, the President of the Law Society was in full support. How the Law Society came to change its mind is another story.

I was present at the opening 50 years ago, wearing my hat as Legal Correspondent of The Guardian. In my piece on 18 July 1970, I wrote of the overwhelming support for the new venture. There were messages of support from the Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor, and from Sir Leslie Scarman, Chairman of the Law Commission. The 50 or so people who crowded into the converted butcher’s shop included Sir Elwyn Jones, former Attorney General and future Lord Chancellor and significantly, the President of the Law Society, Mr Godfrey Morley. I wrote:

‘In October 1968, the then President of the Law Society described the idea of a neighbourhood law centre, with salaried lawyers providing a full scale legal service for the poor and needy, as “the thin edge of the wedge” leading to the loss of independence of the legal profession. Yesterday, less than two years later, the Law Society could hardly have done more if the centre had been its own. Mr Morley said he had the greatest pleasure in opening it, and welcomed the initiative of those on both sides of the profession who started the venture…He spoke of the excellent relationship that had already been established with the local West London Law Society, no fewer than 40 of whose members had agreed to come to work in the evenings at the centre.’

My piece referred to the background:

‘The Law Society waived the normal rules of etiquette so that solicitors working on a voluntary basis could take clients that they see first at the centre to their own offices when they require further assistance.’

The successful launch of North Kensington was not the end of problems between law centres, local solicitors and the Law Society. These went on for a while, culminating in the battle over the grant of the Law Society’s waiver for the Hillingdon law centre. At first it looked as if the Law Society would cave in to the opposition of local solicitors, but wiser counsels finally prevailed and that particular issue was laid to rest.

It is wonderful that this law centre is still doing the job it was set up to do. It is wonderful that Peter Kandler is here. 

I am very glad to have been actively involved over those early years in getting law centres started.

About the Author

Michael Zande QC is an Emeritus Professor Law at the London School of Economics. He taught at the London School of Economics (1963-98), was The Guardian’s Legal Correspondent from 1963-88 and in 2015 was awarded the Halsbury Legal Award for Lifetime Contribution.