Author: Patrick Butler
The tiny office of North Kensington Law Centre is in a long, gloomy cellar beneath a council block adjoining Grenfell Tower in west London. A few yards away, the burned-out tower looms, covered in white plastic sheeting, a reminder of the injustice and social neglect the centre was set up to challenge.
NKLC’s director, Annie Campbell Viswanathan, said: “We provide access to justice for people who cannot afford to take up their rights.” The mission has changed little since NKLC was up as the UK’s first law centre in 1970 to take on exploitative landlords in what were then the slum areas of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove.
Housing remains a huge part of its work, especially since the Grenfell fire in 2017. (It provided assistance for scores of families who lived in and around the tower.) But the centre also manages a growing immigration caseload fuelled by the hostile environment policies that triggered the Windrush scandal.
The scandal, revealed in a series of award-winning Guardian articles, showed how members of the Caribbean community in the UK were detained, made homeless and jobless, and in some cases deported, despite having lived legally in the country for decades, simply because they lacked documentation to prove they had a right to stay.
Campbell Viswanathan said law centres started picking up hostile environment cases from 2013, as people – not only from the Caribbean – came to them having been suspended from their jobs. As immigration conditions tightened, people turned up threatened with eviction, or being unable to renew driving licenses or open bank accounts. “It’s state bullying of the most vulnerable people in our society,” she said.
Much of the increase in immigration work at the centre is driven by poor Home Office decision-making on immigration applications, she added: “Officials are not really looking at cases on their merits, they are saying, in effect ‘How can we refuse this application?’”
In one case, a Bangladeshi woman received a terse letter from the Home Office demanding she leave the country. The department’s records were subsequently revealed to show she had leave to remain. In another, a severely disabled Colombian client was getting married when immigration officials arrived at his wedding and unfairly deported him. He subsequently won the right to re-enter the country.
Campbell Viswanathan said the government’s “merciless pursuit” of immigrants disproportionately affects people without the resources to seek legal redress. That is where law centres step in – NKLC wins most of its immigration cases. “We persevere, we keep on at it and we win justice,” she said.
The law centre only fights cases it believes have a realistic chance of success. NKLC’s budget has shrunk by roughly one-third since 2010 as a result of legal aid reductions and local authority cuts. Even so, it tries not to turn anyone away without help, even if this is to direct them to a homeless hostel or food bank.
NKLC is one of of 43 local providers of legal aid represented by the Law Centres Network, one of the Guardian and Observer’s 2018 appeal charities. The network’s share of appeal donations will be used to create a fund that its members can draw on to create extra capacity to work with clients unfairly affected by the hostile environment policy.
Peter Kandler, 83, helped set up NKLC, and as a trustee, remains a link to its radical roots. He appeared in a short government-funded film in 1973 taking a crowbar to a boarded-up front door to gain re-entry to a house from which his clients had been illegally evicted. Kandler “is more of a legal battler than a traditional solicitor”, the presenter declared. “He’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty for a good cause.”
The film showed Kandler in NKLC’s old office in an butcher’s shop, cigarette in hand, explaining why he set up the centre. His said his aim was to help ordinary people stand up for themselves “and not be crushed by the system”.
He was part of a group of leftwing activists who came to the area in the late 1960s to set up community projects and fight Rachmanitelandlords. It was a world of venal solicitors, corrupt and violent police officers, and racist judges. “One judge asked my client: ‘How long have you been in the country?’ His second question was: ‘Are you on social security and if so, why?’”
Conditions are not as bad now, he said, but the treatment of tenants, in particular, is still appalling. Hard-won housing rights evaporated under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, and austerity cuts, have massively eroded the capacity of law centres to assist people facing injustice, whether in welfare, housing or immigration.
Not having access to legal rights is like “not being able to go to the dentist or a doctor on the NHS”, Kandler said. “There has to be a system, which without charging, helps the homeless, the poor and the working class.”
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