The Law Centre NI was set up in the early 1970s by a dedicated group of solicitors to help those who suffered social inequalities.
“It was about using the law as one aspect of a much broader campaign involving tenants’ organisations, community organisations, to try to highlight social inequality, and try to force a change.” –John O’Neill.
Early campaigners also included Dave Wall, Adrian McCullough, Bob Stronge and the current Director of the Law Centre, Les Allamby.
In the early 1970s housing conditions in Belfast were appalling.“I can remember writing a speech describing the levels of poverty at that time and in particular made reference to the housing in Northern Ireland being the worst in Western Europe, which it was in those days”. Dave Wall
Community activism was growing with campaigns such as Demolish Divis and Save the Shankill. They were supportive of the idea of the Law Centre. A decision was made to have a ‘closed-door’ concept, one which concentrated on ‘test cases’ that they were signposted via a network of community based advice centres. The focus was on cases, which if they were won, would affect large numbers of people, positively.
“If you had one person in Divis Flats, who had a problem in their flat…it would be much better if one case could be used to highlight such a problem and put pressure on the Housing Executive to redress this problem for everybody” John O’Neil.
Enthusiasm for the idea was lacking from the Law Society. However, when the 1974 Labour Government came to power, they agreed to fund the Centre. The Belfast Community Law Centre (later to become the Law Centre NI) opened its doors in 1977 in University Street. The management community was made up of people from the Association of Local Advice Centres, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Belfast Solicitors Association and similar groups.
They fought numerous cases. Against procedures involved in closing old peoples homes, working with community associations and cooperatives in the Short Strand area of Belfast, with the welfare rights movement and benefit take up campaigns and support for the community development movement in general.
The Troubles impacted on the work on a daily basis.
“We did have one guy who worked in the Shankill Legal Advice Centre…he was in and out of police stations. In those days, the IRA kept an eye on people going in and out of police stations… and they decided he must be a policeman and they shot him” Adrian McCullough.
After an initial 3-year pilot period, Professor Campbell in Queens University recommended that the Law Centre be made permanent. They moved on to a wide range of legal work, supporting students from Iran and Iraq seeking asylum, disconnection of electricity supplies, supporting children excluded from school, and a particularly influential case to remove the iniquities of the Payments for Debt Act. They ran Benefit Take-up campaigns informing people about what they were entitled to from the government, including household goods such as cookers and fridges.
They also dealt with the issues that people faced when working and living on different sides of the border – problems that were unique to Northern Ireland within the UK and not easily solved and by the then current laws.
Today the Law Centre NI continues to advance peoples’ rights and has offices in Belfast and Derry.