Holly, one of our volunteers in Cardiff, shares her experience of volunteering with us, and how it's helped her gain skills she'll use into the future.
I’m a student at Cardiff in my penultimate year and I volunteer with Support Through Court, helping people going through court without representation at the Cardiff Family and Civil Justice Centre.
I was recently given the opportunity to attend a divorce financial settlement summary hearing at Cardiff Family and Civil Justice Centre. One person without representation (litigant in person), let’s call her Anita, needed someone to provide emotional support and assistance and so she could understand the legal language of the judge.
Anita’s case had been going on for a while and was part of a sensitive divorce case so the client was, as expected, quite frustrated and on edge – previously she had felt like the justice system had not helped her and in fact did her an undeserved injustice. To have someone there to simply listen to her vent I think helped her feel a lot more seen and heard in a time where she felt like she was quite powerless.
Anita had previously been supported by another fellow volunteer. So the first time I met with the client was just before the hearing to introduce myself and brief myself on the details of the case. This wasn’t Anita’s first hearing but I could see that having someone by her side throughout multiple days in court made such a difference to her confidence – facing court alone is of course an extremely daunting experience.
The previous volunteer had written quite extensive notes about the judges’ comments on the case; I attended the summary hearing. I used the notes to understand where the case was up to, and spoke to Anita about how she felt it was going and what she understood at that point. The Cardiff Service Manager, went through with us what had happened previously and to see a familiar face (as usually all the volunteers change every day) also put the client more at ease.
During the hearing itself, I wrote notes on the key points to ensure Anita had a record to refer back to. The hearing ran slightly behind schedule and the client clearly wanted to get the final day over and done with so I think it was really beneficial that she had someone to sit with her whilst she waited so we could make conversation about other things to put her at ease rather than her being anxiously sat on her own.
It was fascinating to see the judgments, that I usually only read on paper, being read aloud by a judge in the exact same manner as is portrayed in case law, and see the reasoning of the judge come to life. I made notes in a way that a litigant in person would be able to understand considering they had no legal knowledge.
Unfortunately, the case didn't go Anita’s way but she was extremely grateful for the volunteers that had accompanied her throughout and I could see that she felt confident in understanding the outcome.
In terms of helping my career, I know this experience is highly valuable to me. In fact it was just last week that we had a meeting with the Cardiff Uni staff that co-ordinate with Support Through Court (I got this role through an application to university), in which we discussed how this volunteering will hopefully be able to contribute towards Qualifying Work Experience if I want to train to be a solicitor. For my fellow students and I, to be able to add towards QWE at this early point in our career is great and provides part of an alternative to the traditional training contracts that are notoriously hard to obtain. As part of this meeting, we all discussed what was going well, and what we thought could make the Support Through Court office better for both the clients and volunteers. I have personally never been part of a conversation like this before, as it was very open and honest – we discussed things like the emotional toll that intense cases can have on us and how organisation could be improved, which I think is perhaps a reflection of what it will be like in the real life workplace.
Furthermore, my experience so far has really helped my confidence grow, and in particular to trust my own judgement. To begin with I would be hesitant to make any sort of decision on my own but now I take a pragmatic approach, if I am confident that I can give the client the correct information then I will do so without doubting myself. It is my initiative that has grown massively.
It is useful to see the issues that we study as part of our law degree being placed into perspective by real life issues. Beyond this, I have learnt skills that you probably wouldn’t learn just by studying, such as managing client expectations and how to deal with difficult clients. For instance, in this case it wasn't easy to listen to the judge conclude as it wasn't what the client wanted, but to deal with the situation in the best way was to ensure she knew her options going forward. It is hard to know what to say in these type of situations as there is nothing we can say that will change the outcome, but it has taught me and other volunteers that you have to adapt to the clients’ personal and communication needs.
The fact that Support Through Court is likely going to be eligible to form part of QWE shows that it really is a fantastic insight into what it would be like to work in the legal sector. I am eager to make a difference to many more lives via this amazing charity.