Paul's story


Paul, a volunteer in our Manchester office, shares his experience of supporting people facing court alone

My name is Paul and I started volunteering at the Manchester office based in the Civil Justice Centre in July 2023.  I come in to the office every Monday and Friday and help at the occasional recruitment fair. There are quite a few aspects to the role and my previous experience of volunteering with various charities has provided me with a good grounding. Not only has this helped me to better understand some of the various issues that people are experiencing, having dealt with so many clients I know how to conduct a session with a client (whether in-person, on the phone or online) and this experience can be passed on to our law students who are going to have to learn how to do this before they go into practise.  

Another skill that can be passed onto the students is keeping accurate records. This is so important. Knowing the relevant questions to ask and keeping detailed records will stand them in good stead for their future careers. I find it incredibly rewarding being able to help bring the next generation of solicitors and barristers through. 

This falls into several distinct categories: 

  • Firstly, there is the first point of contact and making sure that we are able to support them with their issue and, if not, pointing them in the right direction. We have access to many resources and can still assist the client by looking, for example, on the Law Society website to find suitable legal advice near to their postcode; or locating a registered mediation practitioner close to their home; or a local Citizens Advice Bureau or Law Centre. 
  • Secondly, we can – at the initial appointment – explain the entire court process. As the national average for these things is forty-seven weeks, it is very important to be honest with clients and explain to them that the best they might be able to hope for is three or four months (or considerably faster if they attend mediation) and in the worst case, it could be almost a year. In my experience, clients have been very grateful for this honesty, but it is still very important to be able to set out the entire process from a mediation assessment through to one, two or three hearings and the role of Cafcass and that they can always ask for an interim order – with no guarantee that it will be granted - while matters are being decided. 

Regardless of the type of case, we can explain to the client that nobody goes into court and makes a speech, explaining the importance of the witness statement and making it clear that their statement (which, of course, we can help draft) has to meet the criteria of being credible, reliable, truthful and concise. By explaining this to the client we are serving two purposes: we are preparing the client for the court process, and we are assisting the court by letting the client know in advance what is expected of them – this helps the judges and magistrates and makes things run much more smoothly; this goes a long way in the courts seeing us as an essential service. 

Special measures are extremely important. Many clients are unaware of these and are very fearful of meeting an ex-partner in person. We can explain to them that they can have a side entrance and be escorted by a G4S security guard, have a private room and screens in court, with both parties entering and leaving the court separately. Many of our clients don’t have English as a first language and, although we don’t provide an interpreter service, we can tell them that by booking in advance, they can request an interpreter in court.  

It really can’t be overstressed how important it is for a client to have somebody sitting next to them in court – there for, as much as anything else, moral support. I and every one of my colleagues will have experienced a hand on the shoulder of a client emerging from court to be told, I could not have done that without you. 

As well as supporting a client to an in-person hearing, we can also login to MS Teams if the client has a remote hearing. The same rules apply – we can’t speak on behalf of the client – but we can take notes and speak to them on the telephone both before and after the hearing. I even did one where the other party was in Australia, and he was about 10 hours ahead of us. 

The vast majority of our clients are in family court either for disputed financial hearings related to divorce; child arrangements and money claims. Once again, it is crucial to be able to explain to our clients (especially in money claims) that courts are evidence-based. Holding the moral upper ground is not going to be sufficient – evidence is required – and if their evidence falls just slightly short of the evidence of the other party, they could be in difficulty. Unfortunately, too many clients assume that they can make their claim and that if they are unsuccessful, they have lost nothing. It’s important to explain to clients that they have to consider things carefully – should they lose, they could be liable for substantial costs: it isn’t risk-free. 

Thirdly, we confirm appointments in advance. This serves two purposes. It helps us manage our very busy diary and means that we can explain to the client what the joining process is (they may be attending a hearing and have not been to see us yet) and how to locate their courtroom and the importance of being on time. Had they not been informed of this in advance by us, anxious clients could have been wandering the building unsure of where to go and this could just aggravate their distress. 

One final aspect is that we, on occasions, have to listen to very distressing cases. We look out for each other and would always ask volunteers how a hearing had gone to look for tell-tale signs that somebody might have been affected by the experience. Fortunately, this is rare, but it is extremely important that we look out for each other and make sure that a volunteer doesn’t take home with them what has occurred that day. If need be, one or more of the volunteers (or Service Manager) can make themselves available to sit down and listen to them and see if they have any concerns. 

The service we offer is extremely worthwhile and this is evident by the feedback we get from clients who didn’t realise that such a service existed or that we have an online chat service, a National Helpline and offices based in court buildings throughout the country. 

It can be difficult and, at times, stressful, but is worthwhile, and I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a really interesting and important volunteering role.