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 the PSU, 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.
The PSU aim to reduce the disadvantage of people facing the civil and 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 organisation with around 700 dedicated volunteers. We operate from 23 courts in 18 different cities 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.
Navigating the complex and unfamiliar legal system can be overwhelming. One report showed how wigs and gowns worn by legal professionals create a sense of "other-worldliness", while the language and rules of the courtroom are "elaborate, ritualised and... archaic". Clients can feel alienated, and may struggle to manage their case or present themselves effectively in court, placing their access to justice at risk.
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 2017/18 our volunteers supported clients on over 65,000 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, including:
We are also a central partner of the Litigants in Person Support Strategy. This involves working with several charities to assist the government and judiciary in understanding the needs of those representing themselves in court. We also liaise with the Judiciary, Courts Service, and Courts staff to make the route to justice easier, including the digitisation of documents and processes and the online court.
In 2017/18, 59% of our 65,456 client contacts involved family cases, of which 80% concerned the welfare of children. 21% of cases concerned money and 13% housing. Other significant cases included supporting clients in immigration appeals, welfare benefits and employment tribunals.
We help people whose disadvantages stretch beyond finding themselves at court alone. Many of our clients are battling difficult personal circumstances.
We want to give each of our clients the best possible chance in court, enable them to feel confident in their own situation and empower them to better access justice.
Our work with clients reduces stress on the court system, saving the court time and money.
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 £20. 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. We are keen to expand the number of locations from which we provide a service, and to develop these as funding allows.
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'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.'
'PSU volunteers often defuse angry or tense situations. On some occasions, LiPs told me they would have left the court out of anger if PSU volunteers hadn’t encouraged them to stay and follow the hearing through. This makes the situation for the judges easier.'