Can you imagine what it would be like to go to court without a lawyer to represent you? Given how impenetrable the legal system can seem to a lay person – filled with baffling jargon, complex paperwork and particular processes – it would likely be scary and confusing during what must already be a challenging time. Imagine how much more daunting this must be if English is not your first language, as is the case for many.
Unfortunately, this is a situation facing lots of people in the UK as cuts to Legal Aid and other areas of the justice system have left the poorest and most vulnerable in society without the means to access legal representation, affecting anything from benefit claim disputes to mediation in divorce and separation case. This has led to cases being delayed or even abandoned as people are unable to present details in a way in which they can be assessed by the court, leaving people without any way to access the justice system.
The Personal Support Unit (PSU) is a charity which provides people forced to represent themselves with support and help through volunteers. These volunteers: explain how courts work, help with paperwork, assist with planning what to say, attend court in order to support and take notes, provide details of specialist advisory bodies, and find out if people are eligible for free legal advice. Although they do not act as formal legal representation for clients, they are still able to provide much-needed support and knowledge.
One of the ICR’s Community Reporters, Steven Edwards, wanted to look into the PSU, its work and the issues it faces and so led a curation project to document the organisation. As part of the Community Reporter movement, he gathered the experiences of the PSU’s staff, volunteers and clients based at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, and this article presents a short analysis of the findings.
Increased need for support
A point that really comes out of the stories is the fact that the PSU’s workload has increased dramatically over the last few years. A member of staff at the PSU, Becky, mentions how when she first started there, days in the office would often be quiet without much to do. Now the quiet days are few and far between, with clients and volunteers constantly in and out of the office and the cases becoming increasingly complex.
This is largely down to cuts in Legal Aid making it almost impossible for many to access free legal advice and representation, a situation described by one volunteer as “disheartening” and “shocking”. People who previously would have been able to access solicitors without needing to pay no longer have that option and so the PSU can help them with paperwork, with practicing what they’ll say in court, as well as attending court with them for moral support.
Becky also mentions that the closure of the family courts in Bolton and Rochdale has meant the Manchester office is seeing more complex family cases come through its doors, which require much more support, more deft handling and sensitivity – be it calming people faced with losing access to their children, or keeping people away from their partners. “There is a lot more difficult cases we have come across…….a lot more complicated that we try and help the clients navigate.”
There is also the issue of linguistic and cultural barriers that the PSU can help break through. One man tells how English is not his first language and so he found the idea of his court appearance incredibly daunting. The justice system is a complex arena to navigate at the best of times but if you speak English as an additional language then you may worry about missing things or not fully understanding things which could cause increased anxiety and stress. However, the man tells how the PSU has supported him throughout his court appearances. “I feel more comfortable when they come with me, because I feel someone is next to me … I feel someone is behind me, I feel more comfortable when I go in with them. I booked again for my next hearing and they will come with me.”
And while it might seem to some as if the obvious choice would be to bring a friend along to translate, this is not always possible. In some cases, the court has to be private and therefore those not directly involved in proceedings cannot enter. Additionally, a multi-lingual PSU volunteer notes that people “often can’t find friends to accompany them into the court to translate for them as they themselves are afraid by the name of the court.”
He goes on to tell us how much his linguistic support means to clients. “When I speak in their language then they feel just like at home and they are more comfortable to explain the exact position or their story in their language.” This makes things easier and less stressful for everyone involved as every aspect of the court and legal process can be explained and understood.
Dependent on support
Listening to the curated stories, it’s apparent that the courts rely somewhat on the existence of the PSU and several other charities and support services to help people through the court system, where they previously might have relied on Legal Aid.
It’s clear from how busy Becky and the volunteers are that people are regularly referred to the PSU and how surprised and grateful people are that they can get this advice and support. This, of course, helps the courts in turn as cases can progress more smoothly than if people were representing themselves without any assistance. In fact, Becky notes that the judiciary has previously mentioned to her that having a PSU presence in the court can make everyone a lot calmer.
While it’s great that the PSU exists to help people, the dependence on it and other charities is concerning in terms of its consistency across the UK. Becky notes that the Manchester office is lucky as its location means they have other support services literally on their doorstep. However, other offices are not so fortunate and so they do not always have other bodies to refer people to when necessary. This lack of consistency means people in one part of the UK may not get as much help as those in another. And this, in turn, raises concerns about the sustainability of this system.
Can the system sustain itself?
While no one can know what the future holds, the cuts to legal aid and other areas of the justice system have left the courts reliant on charities such as the PSU to help people forced to represent themselves. However, if these charities did not exist, people would often find their cases dropped or needlessly lost due to a lack of support.
This puts a lot of pressure on the PSU which relies on the availability of volunteers to keep it operating. As a need for the service grows, more volunteers are needed and without them the system cannot sustain itself, meaning ways need to be found to support people through the courts and find them legal representation in order to ensure everyone has access to justice.
You can watch the curated stories below.