As North Kensington Law Centre prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Sue James speaks to Peter Kandler about what led to its opening and the beginning of a nationwide movement of community lawyers.
Peter Kandler speaks at the Law Centres Network conference in Newcastle, November 2018
‘Remember, the police were far more corrupt and violent than they are today,’ says Peter. ‘The police would beat you up then charge you with assault.’ He thinks he was the first solicitor to go to the police station regularly to advise clients upon arrest. ‘The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was the only decent thing Thatcher ever did,’ he laughs. Before the Act, solicitors were not paid to attend the police station and Peter says this was why so many innocent people ended up in prison.
It’s a bright, chilly day in November 2019. Peter arrives at my office wrapped up in a warm coat and scarf, carrying his cane. He is 84 but still working when he can. He wants to see my law centre as he’s interested in our co-location in Hammersmith library. I make him some tea and we chat in my office.
Peter set up the first law centre in North Kensington 50 years ago to bring law to the people. As others started to develop, he created the Law Centres Federation to share information and learning. He left the law centre after 10 years (although he remained on the management committee until 1998) and worked as a criminal defence solicitor. He is now back at the law centre as a trustee and on the executive of Law Centres Network. And, as life often comes full circle, Peter tells me Fran, his partner of 20 years whom he married last year, was actually a volunteer at the law centre when it started.
‘Our landlady was harassing my mother, so I threw my bike at her,’ Peter tells me. He also mentions it wasn’t his first offence – which was when he was 10 or 11 and resulted in a ‘clip round the ear by a policeman for stealing’. The second was slightly more serious: Peter received a summons for assault and had to write what he describes as a ‘crawling letter of apology’ to get it withdrawn. He takes great pride in telling me, ‘That’s why I’ve always hated landlords.’
He was born in Fulham but brought up in Willesden. He describes himself as lower middle class, but I wonder about his description when he tells me his dad was the second person in his street to get a car. His father was the managing director of a shipping firm and his mother didn’t work outside the home after she was married, ‘but she had the books’: rows of Dickens and HG Wells that would form Peter’s education as a teenager. ‘I thought as I read Dickens, at least that isn’t happening now.’ When Peter was 13, his father admitted he didn’t believe in God, that he hadn’t since the Holocaust. Having been brought up in the Jewish faith, Peter responded: ‘Why the hell did you put me through that?’ His father told him it was important he made up his own mind. He has been an atheist ever since.
‘My parents bullied me into being a lawyer,’ Peter says. ‘I wanted to be a historian. Although I’m not sure I would’ve been bright enough to do that well academically because I always hated the law.’ He tells me he felt much more at home ‘taking on landlords, the police and the courts’. He then confesses to his third criminal offence while he was at the LSE: the pulling down of Conservative party posters during an election and piling them at the party agent’s front door.
After finishing his degree, Peter advertised for articles in the Law Society Gazette, which was the norm then, and received a number of offers. He accepted a job in what he describes as a very posh firm in Bedford Row, acting for arrogant rich people. It was around this time that Peter started to visit a small café in Soho called the Partisan, where he played chess. It was there, in the basement, that Peter tells me he became radicalised – listening to lectures by Stuart Hall, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and many others whose names he has since forgotten. He joined the New Left and started going to meetings, rallies and demonstrations.
In 1967, he gave up being a lawyer and worked as an organiser for a summer project for the Campaign Caravan Workshop, which was an offshoot of CND. He set up three ‘legal advice points’, cycling from one to another, organising lawyers and writing letters, but ‘realised it was pointless just being an advice service because the other side knew you had no bite’.
North Kensington Law Centre
In 1968, Peter wrote an article posing the idea for a law centre. The following year, Professor Michael Zander returned from the US with stories of American law centres. They were exciting times. Peter tells me a genuine community group came together to start the law centre and Lord (Tony) Gifford helped with raising the money to open: ‘We just tramped from one charity to another, and being a lord, it helped, you know?’ The first grants were from City Parochial Foundation and the Pilgrim Trust. Peter doesn’t recall how much they gave but he does remember his salary was £2,000 per annum, which he considered not a bad wage in those days.
North Kensington Law Centre formally opened on 17 July 1970, but it had been running for a few months prior from Peter’s freezing cold flat opposite Ladbroke Grove station, with James Saunders, his articled clerk. The first week brought in 200 people. I play Peter film footage of the law centre
. It’s 1973, but looking at him in his sharp black suit and iconic glasses, it could still be the 60s. Everyone is smoking in the video; Peter tells me he was then on 60 cigarettes a day. I ask him how it feels to watch the video, if it feels like him. He struggles to reply, stumbling over his words, and eventually commits to an answer: ‘Yes, it feels like me, a bit. But I haven’t thought about it actually, because I’ve got used to seeing this, and the rest of it, and now I’m 84 and he [pointing to himself on the screen] was in his 30s, wasn’t he?’
I tell him it’s amazing that he set out to do something that became a movement and ask him how that feels. ‘Oh, I do get pleasure out of thinking about all of that sort of thing,’ he replies. The idea of bringing law to the people meant also being a part of the community, so everyone who worked at the law centre had to live in the area. He tells me it worked in the beginning as they were seen as part of the community, using the same cafés, pubs and launderettes. They took on the usual social welfare cases – loads of housing – but did crime as well. The idea was to act in community against the police cases. Peter thinks any law centre ideally should act in those cases now.
A life of crime
I think crime was my thing. I enjoyed doing housing work, but it was complex. More so now.
‘My recollection is that they have really good soups,’ says Peter. We have made it across the busy Hammersmith Road and into Wagamama. We have chosen it for lunch as it’s both opposite the law centre and adjacent to the 295 bus that Peter needs to make his way home. While we look at the menu, I ask him about his criminal defence practice. ‘I think crime was my thing,’ he tells me. ‘I enjoyed doing housing work, but it was complex. More so now.’
He orders the Wagamama ramen and I have a side of chilli squid. The waiter asks what we would like to drink. ‘Having said I don’t drink at lunchtime, I’ll have a dry white wine,’ he replies. The waiter suggests a sauvignon blanc. I order tap water for the table.
Peter has been a criminal defence practitioner for more than 50 years. He tells me he is good at it, that he’s hardly ever had a client on his own advocacy go inside. But he wasn’t always a natural advocate. He says he was so shy, his mum sent him to see a psychiatrist, who taught him the skills to overcome this. The first time he appeared in court, he didn’t know what he was doing, but there was no one else to do the case. Although he was terrified, he says, ‘it’s like the rest of life, you either survive or you don’t’. He enjoys the feeling of getting a bit nervous before a hearing, explaining that it helps to ‘feel it in your gut’ as it ‘keys you up’, although it rarely happens to him now. He tells me the job, working 16–18 hours a day, took its toll on his marriage. His first wife asked him who he would choose – her or the law centre – and he didn’t reply. It’s his one regret: the break-up of his marriage and how it affected his son, Leo.
Peter tells me that Nye Bevan and Stuart Hall were the greatest orators he has heard, but he is a pretty impressive storyteller too. Fifty years spent at the coalface of the magistrates’ court has honed his skill. It is clear he has an interest in people. He wants to know about their lives. He tells me he always sits three or four rows back from the front of the court, next to the dock, so he can communicate with his clients.
Struggling to finish his ramen, the waiter offers Peter a take-out container. I have long since finished mine. He has been regaling me with his stories: Mr Amiable, Commander Bond, the Angry Brigade and being sacked as a stipendiary magistrate by Lord Mackay after ‘complaints from clerks that you give the aura of being a defence lawyer sitting up there’. Laughing, he tells me all his friends were queuing up to get into his court because he granted everybody legal aid.
He laughs a lot as we talk. He is engaging. The kind of person you could sit in the pub with, listening to his stories well into the evening. I don’t quite want it to end so, as it’s lunchtime and we aren’t sitting in a cosy pub, I ask if he wants a coffee instead. He orders an Americano with milk and I have a latte.
And what of the future?
Peter thinks there is so much suffering now that to get publicity for the unfairness of our legal system is very difficult. He tells me that court closures are a deliberate attack on the working class, the poor and the deprived. He worries that private practice may never recover from the legal aid cuts but suggests that law centres could step into the vacuum and create something for themselves. I ask him what advice he would give to young lawyers. ‘Be suspicious of people in authority and be prepared to take them on,’ he replies. He says too many lawyers don’t do that. ‘I don’t know why it came naturally to me,’ he ponders. I suggest the answer lies in the bike-throwing incident. It makes him laugh.
We were successful in bringing law to a fair number of people in our patch.
It’s a lovely warm June day when I catch up with Peter again, this time on the telephone. The world feels like a different place from when we last met – not just globally, but also personally for Peter. He had a heart attack in March. He’s fine now, he tells me, but I don’t want to tire him. His idea in creating the law centre was to bring law to the people. I ask him if he has achieved this. He goes quiet for a minute, then he replies: ‘The answer is, I don’t know. We were successful in bringing law to a fair number of people in our patch, yes.’
As ever, Peter is interested in others. He asks me why I became a lawyer. I tell him about my own radicalisation at Warwick University – where I learned that law could be used as a tool for social change. He tells me that he used to give talks to universities about law centres but can’t recall if he went to Warwick. I can’t recall either – but it would be nice to think so.
Hero in the law
Sir Stephen Sedley (a brilliant brain and such a nice person)
Marylebone Magistrates’ Court (which was converted from a swimming pool with prisoners kept in the old changing rooms)
The Angry Brigade case
I was very conservative, with a small c, I never had long hair
When younger, a pint of real ale – several pints! Now, a glass of wine
Any symphony of Beethoven or Sibelius (I was too shy to get into anything other than classical)
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book
‘At the bar’ is a series of articles in which Sue James, winner of the outstanding achievement award at the 2017 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, interviews friends of access to justice in informal settings and over a glass (or two!).