THE FOUNDING OF THE NORTH KENSINGTON LAW CENTRE

Lord Anthony Gifford QC is a Co-Founder of the North Kensington Law Centre. Anthony Gifford has been Counsel in the appeals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four; Dudgeon v UK (ECtHR) and in many other human rights cases. In this guest blog he looks back to the founding of North Kensington Law Centre.

In the mid-1960s Peter Kandler, a young solicitor, used to give free legal advice at a community centre in North Kensington. Tony Gifford, a young barrister, gave free legal advice at the local Labour Party office in Ladbroke Grove. They became aware of acute injustices: “Rachmanism” which meant unlawful evictions of tenants in areas becoming fashionable; the “sus” laws by which numbers of black men were arrested for “loitering with intent”; domestic violence, unfair dismissals, poor council housing; and racism from the Notting Hill and Harrow Road police.

As “poor men’s lawyers” we could do nothing. There was the Legal Aid and Advice Act passed in 1949 which looked great on paper, but only one solicitor in North Kensington did legal aided cases, and she mostly did family law.

In 1968 an excellent paper called “Justice for All” was published by the Society of Labour Lawyers. The authors, including Anthony Lester, had studied the neighbourhood law firms which had been set up in the US as part of President Johnson’s anti-poverty programme, and they recommended that the Labour government set up a similar scheme. The government agreed to study it. Nothing happened.

Peter and Tony were not prepared to wait. They formed a committee of local residents and activists to plan and operate a Law Centre for North Ken. The members included Muir Hunter QC, a resident of Camden Hill Square who gave us a respectable front which was invaluable; Charles Wegg-Prosser, a senior solicitor of the West London Law Society, worked to get us a much needed waiver to claim legal aid even though our services would be publicly advertised. Reverend David Mason, Donald Chesworth, John O’Malley, George Clark, were all central figures in the local community network. Pansy Jeffrey was head of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Tony Gifford was the honorary secretary, and Peter Kandler was destined to be the Centre’s first salaried solicitor.

The basic principle was that the priorities of the law centre’s caseload would be set by the community and its representatives, not by the money which could be earned. For instance the Centre acted for young people in criminal cases, because of the amount of injustice they suffered, but referred adult crime to West London solicitors, and invited them to join a roster of volunteers that would go to police stations at all hours. In that way we changed their view from suspicion to support, and we got that crucial waiver.

But funding was needed. The local authority was very conservative, and was likely to be one of the centre’s targets. So letters were written to dozens of charities, with no response. In early 1969 Kate Gifford, pregnant with her and Tony’s second child, was busily writing to foundations. The breakthrough came with offers from the City Parochial Foundation and the Pilgrim Trust, who together promised £4,000 a year for three years. Added to legal aid income it was just enough. In 1970 the Centre started its work in a rented butcher’s shop in Golborne Road, with Peter as solicitor and James Saunders as articled clerk. By then the Conservative Party was in power, and Muir Hunter helped to get a letter of support from Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor.

Friends, those are my memories. What followed is history. Others can talk about the shock waves which shook Notting Hill police station when lawyers called to see their clients in the middle of the night, or the fury of landlords served in the afternoon with injunctions obtained by tenants they had evicted in the morning. The Centre led to a movement which transformed access to justice and gave opportunities to hundreds of human rights lawyers.

I congratulate the North Kensington Law Centre for its work over 50 years. May its clients continue to get justice, for they are the important people from whom we learn so much truth about injustice, and for whom we practice our legal skills.

About the Author

Tony Gifford QC is a Co-Founder of the North Kensington Law Centre. Lord Gifford has been Counsel in the appeals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four; Dudgeon v UK (ECtHR) and in many other human rights cases.

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