family law, Personal Support Unit, PSU, litigants in person, LASPO, access to justice, legal representation
The Personal Support Unit (PSU) is a charity which recruits and trains volunteers to give free, independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal representation in civil and family courts and tribunals.
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Apr 24, 2015, 02:00 AM
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This article was originally published in the December issue of Family Law at  Fam Law 1765and has been made available free of charge. It has been updated by the authors since its original publication. The Personal Support Unit (PSU) is a charity which recruits and trains volunteers to
give free, independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal
representation in civil and family courts and tribunals. Our core volunteers give two days a month as
a minimum and come from all walks of life – but tend to be retired and have had
some form of professional career where communication skills are essential. Our
students, while training for the bar or to be solicitors, give a minimum of 20
days during the year of their course. So it’s an energetic and creative mix.
giving legal advice, volunteers work with litigants in person, providing
emotional support and helping them establish for themselves what might be the
next best step to pursue their case – helping clients find out which forms they
need to fill in, tidying paperwork into a rational order and indexing it, guiding
around unfamiliar court buildings, or gaining access to legal advice from other
organisations where appropriate and going with them to court to steady nerves.
act as a bridge, making things easier for litigants, and in consequence for court
staff, lawyers and judges. Where someone is accompanied at court by a PSU
volunteer, it lowers the emotional temperature, enabling proceedings to be
calmer and more productive.
Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, puts it:
volunteers perform the invaluable, sometimes even miraculous, task of calming
litigants, going through their paperwork, and talking through their cases. This means litigants are cooler, calmer and
more collected, and are therefore better prepared to present their arguments to
the court… Consequently, justice is much more likely to be done.'
offer support across the entire range of social welfare issues, including:
family (47% of cases); money and debt problems (25%); and housing (18%). In recent years, we have seen a staggering
increase in the proportion of family cases we assist with – rising from 28% of
PSU cases in 2012/13 to 47% in 2013/14.
changes to legal aid in family law have left many with no choice but to
represent themselves. This prospect, daunting for those from advantaged
backgrounds, is overwhelming for most PSU clients, who are often disadvantaged in
multiple ways. 40% are unemployed, 26% speak English as a second language, 8% are
registered disabled and 22% have a serious health complaint. We estimate that
40% of PSU clients suffer from some form of mental health issue.
volunteers help people in 12 court centres across the country from 9.30am–4.30pm (or four in the Central Family Court). We
are the only organisation providing an instant access service every day in the
courts where we are based. More than 3,400 people walk through the PSU’s doors
want to do more for litigants in person. We have seen substantial increases in
the demand for our help, with 79% more people being helped at established PSUs
than 2 years ago. In response, we have
opened four PSU centres since 2013. With the backing and support of the
judiciary and the profession, we hope to provide many more PSU volunteers
across England and Wales.
a PSU volunteer, my day begins in the security queue entering the court
building, where I see a client I met when he first came in. Mr B is on his way to meet the PSU volunteer
who is accompanying him at his hearing for moral support. He thanks me for my help last week, sorting
through his paperwork with him and arranging an appointment at the CAB. He admits he is nervous about his hearing but,
thankfully, not as much as last time, when he attended court alone.
open the PSU office and our first client comes to the door. Ms N is visibly
distraught and at first can’t explain her case coherently. After a cup of tea she
begins to calm down and I tell her we can’t give advice but we can see if there
is anything we can do. She explains she is seeking a divorce. Ms N is Spanish, with quite limited English
so it takes time for us to understand each other. But I do my best and she begins to relax.
wants help with her C100 form and is worried the judge won’t be able to
understand her. I explain again I can’t give her legal advice but I can help
her as she completes the form. She immediately looks less overwhelmed. We work through the application together, while
I check what she’s written is makes sense. As we submit her forms at the court
counter, Ms N hugs me and thanks me for staying with her.
the way back to the PSU, I spot another blue PSU badge – an elderly woman with
walking sticks is leaning on the arm of one of our student barrister volunteers
(and carrying her five carrier bags of papers) as they make their way along the
corridor. They are talking animatedly.
T is applying for contact with his children, whom he has not seen since the
breakdown of his relationship months ago. He is agitated and says he feels the
legal system is against him. I listen and at first don’t say much. I know he needs a safe and sympathetic place
to express these feelings. He tells me that, most of all, he is anxious about
speaking in his hearing that afternoon. We focus on the practicalities: I ask him
what his goals are and does he know what he wants to say to the judge. I help Mr
T note down the points he wants to get across and he practises out loud what he
will say in court. In front of the judge he is composed and clear. The judge
makes an order for contact, starting this weekend. Outside court, Mr T cries
with relief, shakes my hand but is unable to say much more, and hurries
off. That’s fine, I think to
People appear at the PSU with different states of mind and levels of ability,
but feeling powerless and overwhelmed is common. The stress inevitably has a huge impact on almost
every litigant’s ability to communicate the essentials of their case, both inside
and outside the courtroom. As I leave
for the day, I reflect that probably our clients will feel they got the best
out of their day at court.
The PSU is partly funded by the Ministry of Justice but is also reliant on charity funding from companies and individuals. Their next fund-raising event is a legal treasure hunt taking place in
More information on the Treasure Hunt is available here.