Cuts to legal aid may mean that we are coming full circle to the time before the law centre movement It?s no exaggeration to say that a legal revolution began when the doors of the first law centre in Britain opened in an unprepossessing part of west London.
Legal aid had been available since 1949; but, by 1970, there were few legal practices in rundown areas and few lawyers who acted in housing, welfare rights, employment, discrimination or matrimonial disputes for poor and disadvantaged clients. The north Kensington law centre in Golborne Road was founded by a group of radical young lawyers who believed that access to justice should be provided in the heart of communities and set out to change the way lawyers did business. Dozens of law centres were soon set up across the country.
Change in solicitors? attitudes
At the same time, there was an important shift in the way criminal defence lawyers worked. In the 1970s, the prospects for the average suspect arrested and held at a police station were pretty bleak. There was then no legal aid available for solicitors to attend suspects in police custody and there was little chance of getting a solicitor out to see you at night unless you were paying for the privilege.
Peter Kandler, co-founder of north Kensington law centre, was one of the first to go to police stations to represent clients around the clock. "Solicitors were not paid to go to the police station at all in those days, so only the very rich or very villainous ever had lawyers in the police station,? says Kandler today.
"Beatings and frame-ups were the norm and there was lots of corruption. At places like Notting Dale police station, local people could literally hear the screams of suspects being beaten up inside. Police officers weren?t too happy to see me when I started turning up to represent my clients.?
Greg Powell is a veteran of Brent law centre. "There was tremendous difficulty getting in to see our clients,? he says. "We were still working under the old Judge?s Rules. We often had to ask the police to hand a letter to our client offering our services.?
The long battle to secure the right to legal advice in police stations had begun. "I believe that what we did helped change the way society thought about the sort of protection people should have in a police station. And we helped lots of innocent people,? says Peter Kandler.
Eventually, there was a Royal Commission on criminal procedure and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act followed in 1984. The duty solicitor scheme came soon after.
Michael Turner QC, soon to be chair of the Criminal Bar Association, another figure to have emerged from the north Kensington law centre, thinks law centres changed the system. "The new generation of lawyers got established solicitors thinking about how to represent their clients properly and pushed solicitors who had been strictly open nine to five to provide a 24-hour service. Before that, if you were arrested in the middle of the night, you were simply not represented. The law centre gave solicitors a conscience about what they could do for the community.?
Michael Turner is just one of many prominent lawyers to have roots in the law centre movement. Tony Gifford, another co-founder of the north Kensington law centre, and now head of chambers at 1 Mitre Court, represented defendants in the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six appeals. James Saunders, another early member of north Kensington law centre, established Saunders & Co. Michael Mansfield QC, head of Tooks chambers, helped set up Tottenham law centre. John Hendy QC, a distinguished defender of trade union causes, founded the Newham rights centre in east London. Greg Powell is still the managing partner of Powell Spencer after more than 30 years.
Today there are more than 50 law centres across the country; but many are struggling financially. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) promises to cut civil legal aid drastically for much of social welfare law, potentially devastating for law centres, for whom a significant proportion of funding comes from legal aid.
Many take the view that LASPO is an assault on the long established idea that publicly funded legal services and the right to representation and equality of access should sit alongside the NHS, education, social security and housing as an important part of a fair society, and that the cuts to legal aid are taking us back in time to where we were before law centres stepped in.
"The government is paying only lip service to the principle of providing the safety nets people need,? says Michael Mansfield. "Neighbourhood law centres provided a place which was welcoming and understanding, tackling issues on behalf of the ordinary person who didn?t have access to resources,? he says. "These legal aid cuts are a disaster. The reality is that law centres could become victims of a financial crisis of which they are not the author.?
It?s not just civil legal aid under assault: fees in crime have taken a battering in recent times too. Many worry that the creep towards telephone advice only in the police station will have a damaging effect at a critical stage in the process. "The government today don?t care about what happens to ordinary people in that sort of hostile environment,? says Peter Kandler. "I think the changes we are seeing now are monstrous and are taking us back to where we were decades ago.?
Michael Mansfield agrees the idea is dangerous. "The police station is the crucial point at which defendants first engage with the system; and it?s the moment they simply must have access in person to qualified and able lawyers, especially as the onus is shifting towards the defence to prove innocence,? he says.
So what effect will this attack on legal aid have? Will the cuts inspire a new generation of politically inspired lawyer? Or will the financial restraints prove too much of a deterrent, diverting good young lawyers away from legal aid work?
"The talented young political lawyer is still with us, but it?s so much harder to make a living with graduated fees and one-case-one-fee on the horizon,? says Michael Turner.
"The need for radical lawyers is now greater than ever,? says Michael Mansfield. "They need to be out there in the community at the forefront, fighting exploitation.?
What began in north Kensington law centre revolutionised the way law is practised and law centres remain an important part of their communities. As cuts threaten legal aid and access to legal services, they may be needed more than ever. A new generation of radical young lawyers with consciences will be needed too.