The North Kensington Law Centre

After I published my blog about law centres last night, Raji Hunjan[1], a former Director of the North Kensington Law Centre, sent me a message in which she told me that in the last five years the centre had fought to survive and to serve North Kensington despite huge cuts and little external support.

This led me to think it might be useful to publish a further blog, this time concentrating on this particular law centre, since it is in the eye of the firestorm which engulfed nearby Grenfell Tower last week.

Today it has published this notice on its website:

Following the recent tragic events at Grenfell Tower, we have been inundated with kind offers of help from members of the public.

We are open as usual, but are running a number of additional services to help the community here in North Kensington.

From Monday 19th June, we will be running daily legal clinics to help local residents affected by the disaster to get the legal support and access to justice they need. We will also be running sessions to help residents gather the documents and paperwork they will require for any future claims.

We will be holding a residents’ meeting in our offices at 6.30pm on Monday 19th June. Please come along if you are a local resident who has been affected by the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, and what to learn more about your legal rights and how we can help.

We are committed to helping all residents take practical steps to start rebuilding their lives and to access justice. We look forward to seeing you all over the coming days.

As I have often said, if neighbourhood law centres did not exist, one would want to invent them.  Never has the need been greater.  Yet in what is said to be the richest borough in England this law centre, the first of its kind, – if it survives it will celebrate its half-century in 2020 – has been facing unprecedented difficulties in order to ensure that it continues to provide some kind of service in a hostile climate which wiped out so many other similar centres, as I described in my last blog.

If it had the means to do so, it would publish an annual report, like the Hackney and Southwark centres do, from which one could get a better idea of what it does, why it is so important, and how it obtains its funding.  I have garnered the information in this blog from different sources on the web – and particularly the Centre’s own website.

Between 2010 and 2015 its gross annual income was slashed from over £900,000 to just over £350,000.   It provides legal help and representation in housing, immigration, employment, crime and welfare benefits law.  It has a small staff, led by its director.  Two of its immigration caseworkers possess Level 2 accreditation, which means that they can handle more complex cases.  It also engages specialist casework volunteers for one or two days each week.

Its website describes how it has secured legal aid contracts in some of those areas of social welfare law which are still “in scope.”  It also describes a pilot scheme whereby the local council (RBKC) funded a project whereby it was able to give legal advice to the voluntary and community sector in topics like employment disputes, redundancy issues, the legal advice contained in staff handbooks, and staff contracts.  Legal aid is no longer available for any kind of employment dispute, but Trust for London partly funded some of its work in that field.  It says that it also has a small amount of funding from which it can help some people in welfare benefit cases free of charge.

It is one of the few law centres that provides services in fields of law that are “out of scope” for legal aid either on a low cost fixed fee basis (for immigration cases) or on a “no win no fee” basis for cases in which financial compensation is being sought.  It describes an impressive win it achieved for a client in a discrimination case.  A damages-based agreement was in place, and this enabled it to recover some of its costs out of the damages it recovered. It says:

We were instructed by our client, who had attended a job interview where she disclosed her disability.  Her concern was, having raised the issue of her disability, the interviewer then proceeded to ask questions about her reliability and capability to do the job. This line of questioning made her feel uncomfortable and she wrote to the company to express her concerns.  Rather than receive an apology, she was threatened with costs against her should she pursue her complaint any further.

The importance of this service is that I have heard again and again how the “telephone gateway” – the only facility funded by the Legal Aid Agency for discrimination cases – is wholly unsuitable for many discrimination sufferers who need the reassuring comfort of a face-to -face interview in order to bring out clearly the kind of treatment they have suffered from.  But few services like the one at North Kensington have survived the brutal LASPO cuts.

It is not easy for an outsider who has not read deeply into the topic to appreciate the scale of the damage done to social cohesion by the LASPO cuts, and by the Treausry’s insouciant belief that one can apply swingeing reductions to expenditure on “justice” without further disempowering those who are already severely disempowered.

This is why the current funding appeal for the North Kensington centre is so important, and why it is so important that with supportive and practical help from the Law Centres Network and, one would hope, the chastened local authority and other funding sources (including, perhaps, Her Majesty’s Government), it achieves the £100,000 target of its current funding appeal [2]

Once it has done this, there must then surely be a determined effort to put its finances back on a really secure and sustainable footing, so that it does not have to turn so many needy people away in future.

I end by republishing a case study from their website about one of the many clients it has been able to help when they are faced with problems they could not possibly cope with on their own.  [Emphasis added by me for two points that are particularly relevant today]

Housing Case Study
Mr D’s case is very typical of the cases we handle at North Kensington Law Centre.  He had been moved from London and housed in temporary accommodation in a coastal town for nearly a year, whilst his close networks remained in London.  Mr D came to us because he was facing eviction from his temporary accommodation which would have left him homeless.  We successfully fought this case and helped Mr D avoid eviction; we are now working to get him rehoused in London where he originally resided. 

The background
Like many of our housing clients, Mr D suffers severe mental health issues.  He had previously fled from another country where he had been tortured by the Army.  He was still suffering flashbacks about his traumatic past, which had a severe impact on his ability to interact with those in positions of authority.  In particular he felt extremely vulnerable when dealing with the courts on his housing matter.

Mr D was living in temporary accommodation when the Landlord served notice to terminate the tenancy and issued possession proceedings in County Court.   The Landlord served notice by arguing that Mr D did not live in the property.  As evidence he used that fact that Mr D often visited his daughter in London, and that on inspection, he had not used the cooker in the temporary accommodation.  In reality Mr D did not use the cooker because he had been told not to by the Landlord as it was unsafe to use.

Our Involvement
We agreed to represent Mr D in the possession case, even though we were concerned about the strength of our defence because it was temporary accommodation and an unsecure tenancy. We defended that Mr D had no mental capacity to litigate and that this was a breach of Equality Act.   At the first hearing the Judge reacted positively and commented that he would welcome more of these cases as proceedings of this type were rarely challenged.  But even with this support, this case remained a very tough one to win.

With skill and patience we supported the client, as he was often afraid to even talk and our Housing Solicitor had to conduct all interviews in the presence of Mr D’s daughter.   His relatives would plead with him to attend court as the day before the hearings he would retreat, cover himself with quilts and refuse to talk to anyone because he feared he would be killed.

Funding Problems
Aside from Mr D’s mental state, the other obstacle we faced was funding.  Mr D’s benefits had been stopped for not attending a medical examination.  And so the only way we could secure Legal Aid was by proving his son and daughter’s income, which was difficult because the son was unable to obtain a statement from the bank for an account that had been closed earlier in the year.  We personally contacted the bank and demanded the evidence we required.

With no funding in place, we could not instruct an expert report on Mr K’s mental capacity and without this we could not proceed.  On this basis, the Landlord’s solicitor made an application to strike out our defence and our Housing Solicitor produced a 50 page statement explaining actions taken to restore legal aid, exhibiting all the emails and telephone conversations with the Legal Aid Agency .

A satisfactory win
After much effort, legal aid was restored just in time for the second hearing and the judge accepted our Solicitor’s statement and extended our time to comply with directions. We obtained an expert’s report from an experienced Psychiatrist.  The report gave a compelling case about Mr D’s lack of mental capacity to litigate and why he should be placed near relatives in London.  We used this report to negotiate with the other side that the possession order be dropped. Having achieved this, we then fought for our costs, and were awarded £20k.  And the fight continues as we are now working with Mr D to get him housed in London.

This is not a world populated by the “fat cat lawyers”, so often lazily stigmatised by unthinking politicians and  some elements of the tabloid press.  It is a world in which dedicated and skilled professional men and women – and others with much-needed ancillary skills – are determined to apply their skills to serve the poorest among us for quite a small financial return.

 

 

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[1] She is now the Chief Executive of the Zacchaeus Trust, of which I am proud to be a patron, which does comparable work in the North Westminster area.

[2] In the last 30 hours nearly 150 people have contributed nearly £10,000, but there is still a long way to go.

2 thoughts on “The North Kensington Law Centre

  1. Pingback: The North Kensington Law Centre and Grenfell Tower – Henry Brooke

  2. Thank you for this Henry. It is extremely important that the word be spread in relation to all the issues you raise. After asking questions, in particular about those who may be deterred from coming forward because of difficulties with their immigration status, I had been assured that there were few immigration problems. However, this article appears to show otherwise and will help to show where and how further contributions may be usefully made.
    Catriona

    Like

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