The Importance of Law Centres

I am very pleased to have joined the management committee of Camden Community Law Centre.

I am re-posting my article about Law Centres which previously appeared at The Justice Gap.

Many solicitors firms and chambers influential in criminal defence in the last few decades were founded by lawyers who cut their teeth in 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.

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.’

Avon & Bristol Law Centre

Greg Powell is a veteran of Brent Law Centre. ‘There was tremendous difficulty getting into 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, 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 thirty years.

Lip service
Today there are more than fifty 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 stage 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.’

Paddington Law Centre

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.

LCCSA: The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association at 65

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It’s early October 2013 in central London. There’s a long queue of criminal defence lawyers snaking down Euston road in the direction of the old Clerkenwell Magistrates Court. The lawyers’ faces have a look of grim determination. A meeting is about to start about the future of Legal Aid, and solicitors and barristers from London and around the country have assembled to deliberate, listen, let off steam. Organising the meeting is the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), 65 years old this year.

The LCCSA was founded in 1948, the same year in which whipping and hard labour were removed from the court’s sentencing powers, perhaps to the relief of the thieves and swindlers appearing at that other defunct court house, Bow Street Magistrates Court. The imposing figures of Claude Hornby, Arthur Prothero, Samuel Coleman and a handful of others were worried about the looming Legal Aid Act. Legal Aid was seen by the then small number of lawyers practising in central London courts as a ghastly threat, both to their income and to standards. As former president Jeffrey Gordon put it, “criminal practitioners were worried that Legal Aid would drive out the paying client.” The other aim, he said, was to establish ethical standards “so as to distinguish members from what one might call the more doubtful practitioners.”

Past president of the LCCSA, HHJ Timothy Lawrence, who did his articles at Claude Hornby and Cox, puts it bluntly: “It was for the elite criminal practitioners and they were very jealous as to who they let in.” There was a concern that criminal law was attracting a sleazier, undesirable side of the profession, an impression not aided by the seedy solicitor caught trying to smuggle a raincoat and a false moustache into the Old Bailey for his client to make good his escape. The founder members wanted the Association to confer a hitherto absent status on criminal lawyers. Members also agreed a protocol to allow them to pass work to each other without it being pinched by the unscrupulous. The applications of those who applied to join were analysed thoroughly and proposed members were routinely blackballed. It was considered a great honour to join. One solicitor who was refused membership began high court proceedings to force the Association to let him join. He remained a non-member. Vivien Symons, the first female member of the LCCSA, said in an interview in the Advocate not long before she died that she had been thrilled to be proposed for membership by Claude Hornby. “You’d only be proposed for it if you were a reasonable advocate,” she recalled.

Criminal law in London was then a much smaller world in which a small group of solicitors’ firms undertook much of the criminal defence work, and the LCCSA remained an exclusive, largely West End dominated club. Early presidents included celebrated practitioners of the post war period such as Sir David Napley, J B Wheatley, Victor Lissack, and T V Edwards. Typically solicitors’ offices would be situated right next to court rooms. Claude Hornby and Cox was next to Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Police Court where, long before the Crown Prosecution Service existed, police officers queued up to prosecute their prisoners, giving evidence before a stipendiary magistrate. Timothy Lawrence recalls one such Stipe at Great Marlborough Street who, when called a ‘bald old bastard’ by a departing prisoner, declared to the public gallery, ‘He is quite right on two of those points.’ The charismatic Victor Lissack, known for his love of gold jewellery, had his office next to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. One time secretary of the Association HHJ Steven Dawson trained with the firm and, in the days before the duty solicitor scheme, he says, the court would ring the solicitors next door to say there was a prisoner in the cells and could the firm send someone over to represent them. Those were simpler times.

Working dinners dominated the Association’s calendar. Steven Dawson recalls that the annual dinner was initially a chance for solicitors to entertain the grand old stipendiary magistrates, usually barristers some of whom had been sitting since before the war. ‘Solicitors, particularly those in crime, were thought to be a little below stairs, and this was a chance to raise their profile,’ he says. Sandra Dawson, who has been on the LCCSA committee for 25 years, recalls that when she started there were about three hundred members. In those days before computers, members’ details were kept on index cards and communication with members was a laborious task. She has seen enormous changes, she says. “The Association was far more social back then,” she recalls. “There were some working dinners, but there was no training, and the membership was quite exclusive.” That began to change significantly. The first woman president was District Judge Sue Green followed in the next few years by June Venters QC, Angela Campbell and Linda Woolley. The old boys’ club was coming to an end. Training was begun in earnest by Julia Holman and has expanded enormously – members now routinely click onto the Association’s webinars for their CPD points. Membership grew and became much more diverse, and in time there were more than 1000 members.

As membership grew so did the annual dinner. Held at various swanky hotels including the Savoy and the Dorchester, the annual dinner grew in size – when one time president Mark Haslam of Burton Copeland spoke at the dinner there were 1200 people there – and it was on occasion a notoriously noisy and drunken affair. Mark Haslam was also instrumental in establishing the Association’s European Conferences in the 1980s and he holds at least one proud record. “I have the dubious honour of being the only member to have attended each and every one of the trips,” he says. The most interesting trip, he says, was the one to Berlin before the wall came down. The most memorable? “Anyone who went to Dublin will instantly remember a pub called the Johnny Fox; that is if anything remains of their recollection!” European conferences remain an important and much needed opportunity to spend time with fellow professionals to talk about law and much besides.

Communication with members changed too. The dry newsletter sent to members had typically been a densely typed reproduction of the Association’s minutes and responses to new legislation. In 1995 the LCCSA magazine, The Advocate, appeared and immediately became an important source of news, views, information and guidance, binding London solicitors in its unflagging spirit of comradeship. Early editions reveal anxiety about some familiar issues. In the very first edition of The Advocate the magazine reports on the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay’s plans for legal aid reforms and competitive tendering. In issue number 3 in March 1996 there was concern about the drop in the amount of work in Magistrates’ courts. The July 1999 edition carries an article by future president Rob Brown about cuts to legal aid and the importance of retaining ‘solicitor of choice’. The article is headlined ‘The Value of Justice’. Other back copies are a gallop through such reforms as Carter, the Auld report, Narey courts, block contracting and fixed fees, and reveal that even as consultations, Home Secretaries and Lord Chancellors came and went, the Advocate remained a reassuring and entertaining constant.

There were earlier indications of the prominent campaigning role the LCCSA would in time assume. Already by the 1970s the Association was being consulted by the Home Office on legislation and fees, regularly responded to consultations and worked with the Law Society Criminal Law Committee. In 1979 the LCCSA submitted evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. The Association now wielded some clout with legislators. The LCCSA’s role was changing.

Campaigning became an important part of the work of the LCCSA. The Association responds to the stream of consultations and is represented on significant groups and bodies within the criminal justice system, influencing and shaping policy. Greg Powell, another past president, says that in some ways events forced the LCCSA to change character and become what it is today. “There has been such an enormous change in the last 10 to 15 years.” he says. “There was no longer a convivial inside track in which representatives from the LCCSA could negotiate. The changes have been so large and severe that the government didn’t want to work that way any more. The LCCSA had to become a more campaigning organisation, with the ability to present evidence and organise mass responses to consultations.” He pays tribute too to past presidents Rob Brown and June Venters who vigorously resisted the Carter reforms, the market and tendering proposals which were the wellspring of consolidation plans that remain today.

The present day committee is strengthened by the experienced presence of past presidents like Greg Powell, Paul Harris and Raymond Shaw. Paul Harris says it was exciting and a great honour to be president. “I think our great achievement has been in becoming an effective campaigning and lobbying organisation and in becoming highly regarded by other agencies in the criminal justice system,” he says. “The trick is to balance the interests of our diverse membership of owners, employees, freelancers, CPS lawyers and the rest. I am proud of our reputation and of remaining important to our membership.”

Greg Powell agrees. “The modern LCCSA has succeeded in being thought of as of value to members, resisting PCT, defending collective interests, mobilising members, and being able to help shape events.”

The organisation has evolved and changed out of all recognition. Where once the LCCSA was a cosy, closed, inward looking club for respectable middle class solicitors worried about the menace of Legal Aid, the Association is now an effective, inclusive pressure group, campaigning against successive governments’ assaults on the same Legal Aid system.

The exclusive London club doesn’t exist any more. What has replaced it is on view at that October Legal Aid meeting. Solicitors and lawyers from scattered parts of London, from big firms and small, sole practitioners, self-employed advocates and prosecutors as well as associate and honorary members, are taking their seats. The LCCSA represents them all. The debate is vigorous, serious, angry, important. Sixty five years on the LCCSA has grown up. Not retiring, just getting started.

 

This article first appeared in the London Advocate Magazine