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Personal Support Unit – Bristol Civil Justice Centre

Date:13 APR 2015
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Law Reporter

In the post-legal aid reforms era of Family Justice, litigants in person face an ever-increasing struggle to navigate the world of family law without professional representation. The use of Personal Support Units (PSU) in civil justice centres across the country is gaining momentum as more and more units have opened and are engaging in providing support to those unable to afford legal assistance.

In January 2014 a new Personal Support Unit was opened at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre and Paul Bryson was recruited to establish a team of volunteers and co-ordinate the service. The Family Law team at Jordans went to meet with him to find out a bit more about the work that the unit does.

The work of a volunteer varies greatly on a day-to-day basis and ranges from answering straight forward questions, assisting with filling out forms, to meeting with court users prior to a hearing, and accompanying them into court. A crucial function is signposting to other appropriate services.

The December issue of Family Law reported on the demographic of litigants in person who often have no choice but to represent themselves. The prospect of representing yourself while 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.

The volunteers themselves come from a variety of backgrounds ranging from law students to retired solicitors, a mix which Paul thinks is particularly important to ensure court users are provided with a good standard of support. Each volunteer commits to at least two working days each month.

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Although volunteers are often from the law community an essential feature of the training programme is to ensure that volunteers do not attempt to give legal advice. The role is one of practical and emotional support and cannot encroach upon legal matters. Although this can be difficult for those who have spent their career offering legal advice it is something volunteers are able to adapt to and it is fundamental to maintaining the integrity of the service.

In his experience the type of support offered is invaluable to court users who often just want to tell someone their side of the story and feel unable to move on to taking the next legal step without having done so. Paul highlighted that it is often the simple functions that the unit performs which are the most important such as just sitting down and having a cup of tea with court users or just offering a friendly face in an unfamiliar setting.

The majority of cases dealt with by the PSU are family cases, primarily involving children, but they are available to deal with all civil matters including money and housing issues.

So far the PSU has been welcomed by members of the judiciary and legal profession. Paul commented that the PSU is not in a position of competing with law professionals, but is merely offering a non-legal service because professional help is unascertainable to some people. In some instances court users will later instruct a solicitor if they are able to or will continue to litigate themselves with the support of the PSU. In either instance the judiciary and legal representatives involved tend to be appreciative of the assistance they provide. The liaison judge in Bristol, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, is proactive in supporting and promoting the work of the unit. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales has endorsed the introduction of PSU’s referring to the ‘invaluable and often miraculous’ service they provide. Paul is keen to strengthen links with members of the local law community in order to raise awareness and promote interagency working so please do get in touch with him by email at Bristol@thepsu.org.uk or by telephone on 0117 366 4809.

‘People are grateful to have the free assistance to help guide them through what can be a difficult time. I think people are so relieved to have someone to talk to in the courts. It is someone willing to give them time and support,' said Paul. He continued, 'People don’t always understand the process. We help people understand and fill in forms when they would otherwise be tackling them alone. The most important thing we do is the emotional support – that is what clients appreciate.’

The PSU is partly funded by the Ministry of Justice but is also reliant on private and charity funding. Their next fund-raising event is a legal treasure hunt taking place in Bristol on Wednesday 29 April 2015. Tickets are £50 per team (maximum 5 people per team), meeting at 5.15pm at Totos Wine Bar where teams will return for free food and drinks afterwards.

For a more detailed article on the Personal Support Unit see December [2014] Fam Law 1765 .

More information on the Treasure Hunt is available here.

For more information about the service visit http://www.thepsu.org/