The North Kensington Law Centre and Grenfell Tower

Yesterday Lord Bach’s Commission held a two-hour session with five people (two of them lawyers) who told us from first-hand experience about what has been happening (or not happening) since the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower two months ago.

A few years ago, our ambassador in Sarajevo told a group of us that one could only understand modern-day Bosnia if one realised that its population was still suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. That memory stayed with me vividly yesterday morning.

We heard about

People whose needs are unimaginable but who are being pressed to take critical decisions about their future with long-term implications long before they are in any fit state to do so;

People who are misunderstood when they express their feelings in a way familiar to those from their own culture but misread from a narrow Anglo-Saxon standpoint (“raising your voice and waving your arms about is no way to behave, my dear[1]”);

People whose very great distrust of authority before the fire has been aggravated by the official incompetence they have been witnessing ever since.

And in the middle of this maelstrom of anger, mourning, mistrust and utter helplessness lawyers are doing their best, with precious little help from the taxpayer, to provide practical help and advice on every conceivable subject under the sun.

And their task is made more difficult by the proliferation of inaccuracies carried like wildfire along the community grapevine:

“Don’t use [excellent] firm X: they are just ambulance-chasers;

Don’t go near the North Kensington Law Centre: they have got a Conservative on their governing body”),

which leads the field wide open for charlatans of the type who used to earn a fortune peddling bad advice in the immigration law market not very long ago.

As things currently stand, legal aid (subject to very strict financial eligibility criteria – somehow or other relaxed so far as relief grants are concerned) is available only for the handful of situations covered by the LASPO Act[2]. There is, however, an impressive cohort of skilled advisers willing to help pro bono following the Law Society’s initiative, but no obvious co-ordinating mechanism.

Hence the central importance of the North Kensington Law Centre.

A couple of years ago when it was struggling for its very survival the Centre disappointed Grenfell Tower residents by explaining that it could only handle cases in the housing field if an eviction was threatened, or if want of repair was imminently threatening someone’s health – and nothing else. That was the baleful effect of LASPO.

Now it is working overtime, largely pro bono, referring bewildered people to very skilled advisers if they are unable to deal with their problems themselves.

Leaseholders have masses of problems besetting them in different fields of law, and the Centre has asked a group of QCs, acting pro bono, to put together an advice package for them.

It is also now working hard in consultation with the Council to ensure that the offers that are made to displaced residents are sensible and workable before they are ever made.

They are flooded with people, coming in to their small offices all day and every day. If only they had more resources, they would be able to help more of them: a crowdfunding appeal for £100,000 seems to have reached a plateau at just half that amount, and this does not ensure sustainability for the future.

Whereas poorer councils like Southwark or Hackney still manage to fund their law centres to the tune of £300,000 a year, wealthy Kensington and Chelsea (and I write as a council-tax payer) only pays their law centre a fraction of that.

Are there any more Trusts or charitable foundations out there who can help?

They have been helping people, pro bono, to prepare written submissions about the terms of reference of the public inquiry[3]. They have been referring probate cases to highly specialist advisers (in one case a trust fund has already been set up for a five-year old orphan). For advice about the inquests they have been referring clients to INQUEST.

They have been handling highly complicated cases involving people from overseas. They have been liaising with the big insurance companies (which have each appointed a key person to handle Grenfell Tower claims). They have been helping people to resist claims for more expensive car insurance (charged because they have had to move to a more highly rated area).

They have helped people with employment law issues who are frightened whether they will be allowed to return to work. They are handling an immense number of complex immigration issues of one kind or another.   They are handling welfare benefit issues – which as their director Victoria Vasey explained, is their normal “bread and butter stuff”: no legal aid here, either.

The scale of this tragedy has shown just how rotten a piece of legislation LASPO is – and always has been. It contains no flexibility – no power for the Legal Aid Agency to rise to an occasion like this which cries out for immediately available publicly funded legal advice. As Victoria said:

“The big problem is about what’s in scope [for legal aid]. This sort of thing could happen again. There needs to be planning ahead for disasters like this. Law centres should be able to be more robust. We badly need staff to help with public law and policy issues.”

And so on.

I hope to pay my first visit before the month is out. Watch this space.

 

 

[1] Not actually said, but illustrative of much of the early official response.

[2] We heard that although inquests qualify for legal help (including the preparation of questions to be asked at the inquests, which are purely formal at present), the Legal Aid Agency is so tied up by its own bureaucratic straitjacket that it will apparently only sanction the deployment of legal aid housing lawyers for this purpose.

[3] No public funding will be available until the inquiry is officially set up – and there may be continuing wrangles, very possibly in the courts, over its terms of reference.

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