In 2001, Diana Copisarow OBE, a volunteer for the Witness Service at the Old Bailey, was approached for help by a woman without representation about to go through a divorce from her barrister husband at the Royal Courts. Under great stress, she faced a confusing court system and uncertainty about appearing before a judge. Diana and Michael Naish, the Director of the Witness Service were so horrified at the experience and lack of support in the civil courts, they set up Support Through Court, with the help of Mark Sheldon, CBE from Linklaters, and also seed funding from this law firm to meet the needs of people going through the court system alone.
We aim to reduce the disadvantage of people facing the civil or family justice system without a lawyer, enabling them to access justice. We believe that no one should face court alone and so we work to provide immediate support to everyone who comes to us.
We are an award-winning charity with over 880 dedicated volunteers. We operate from 20 courts across England and Wales. Despite the growing need for our work, we remain the only organisation providing this service.
Reductions in legal aid and closure of advice centres in recent years have stripped away a vital element of support for a fair and just legal system. As laws are increasing in both quantity and complexity, the need for advice, support, and representation is greater than ever.
In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) implemented large changes to legal aid. Most social welfare law (education, employment, debt, housing, immigration and welfare benefits) and private law children and family cases are now out of scope for legal aid. This has forced more people into a situation where, if they wish to access justice, they must do so without legal representation.
Some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised members of our society have been hardest hit by the changes. Legal troubles are often compounded by additional disadvantages such as unemployment, language barriers, and mental or physical disability.
The burden of having to represent themselves can lead to relationship breakdown, mental health problems, financial difficulty, and even job loss. It can be a downward spiral, leaving people in a worse place than it should. Family breakdown has a serious impact on children, magnified by extended periods of conflict and unsatisfactory outcomes.
Our trained volunteers provide emotional and practical support to clients throughout the court process. We ensure those facing court alone can represent themselves with dignity and support them to fully take part in court to better access justice. In 2019/20 our volunteers supported clients on over 78,000 occasions.
Our volunteers support people at times of extreme stress, enabling them to present their case to the best of their ability. This gives them a far greater chance of accessing justice. Support from our volunteers can have a direct impact on the outcome of a client's case and in consequence on the rest of their lives. Tailored to each individual, our volunteers provide wide-ranging help, e.g. providing legal information, explaining what would happen in court, helping people to fill out complicated legal forms, and supporting them as they plan what they would like to say to the judge.
We also work in synergy with external agencies to reduce duplication to ensure a smoother journey through the courts for our clients. When needed, our volunteers signpost clients to organisations offering free legal advice or specialised support on topics such as domestic violence, debt, and housing. Support from our volunteers not only makes a person's experience less stressful but can also have a direct impact on the outcome of their case. Feedback in 2019/20 shows that 98% of our clients felt that our support enabled them to get a fairer hearing in court.
We value diversity, promote equality and challenge discrimination. We never forget the inequality our clients suffer as a result of appearing in court without a lawyer, which can be compounded by special needs and/or personal circumstances. We aim to support everyone who comes to us as equally as we can and will do our best to offer reasonable adjustments if we understand clients’ needs.
A cost-effective model
We have low overheads as the courts in which we operate donate our office space and utilities. Our reliance on volunteers to deliver our core activities allows us to keep staff numbers low, ensuring we can support each client for less than £35. This represents a model that is both cost-effective and scalable. Our volunteering opportunities allow us to draw the whole community into our service, creating social inclusion and skills development opportunities.
We continue to believe that no one should face court alone, and are looking to develop ways to support more people through court. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get involved.
'I have a mental health problem and when I arrived I was overwhelmed and did not think I would be able to cope. Jasmine made it possible to get through the day. A big thank you!'
'We meet people from all walks of life and help them solve their problems.'
'The charity's volunteers often defuse angry or tense situations. On some occasions, LiPs told me they would have left the court out of anger if the charity's volunteers hadn’t encouraged them to stay and follow the hearing through. This makes the situation for the judges easier.'