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Pro Bono Work: Personal Support Unit

Date:24 APR 2015
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This article was originally published in the December issue of Family Law at [2014] Fam Law 1765 and 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.

Without 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.

We 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.

As Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, puts it:

'PSU 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.'
We 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.

The 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.

PSU 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 each month.

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We 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.

To find out more about the PSU and how you can help, visit http://www.thepsu.org/

A volunteer’s day

As 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.

I 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.

She 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.

On 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.

Mr 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 myself.

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 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.

More information on the Treasure Hunt is available here.