Community Advice offered in Court
A new court-based Advice Service at Highbury Court is most welcome!
The Magistrates Court is not somewhere people associate with receiving advice, other than the occasional finger-wagging lecture from a Justice of the Peace, usually warning of the consequences of not complying with their instructions. Yet the vast majority of people who pass through their doors are clearly in need of advice and help in tackling the kinds of problem that brought them to Court in the first place.
Homelessness, mental health, unemployment, poverty, debt, alcoholism, drug addiction, illiteracy, overcrowded accomodation, domestic violence, the Courts often see some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.
Of course the Probation service can sometimes help, but are suffering from funding restraints as well as outsourcing, and Community Orders are increasingly targetted at punishment rather than rehabilitaion.
Often solicitors defending at these Courts try to plug the gap in the lack of advice available, but apart from constraints on time and money have to be careful not to blur the professional boundary between lawyer and client, as well as acknowledging that we are not trained counsellors or social workers, lacking the resources and knowledge to advice on the areas that need addressing outside the immediacy of legal representation. Often lawyers do not even know where to direct clients who need help in other areas.
All this has changed with this exciting project at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court.From January of this year, the project has been offering help and advice from a small room accessed from the same waiting area as the Courtrooms on the first floor. And as there is plenty of waiting at Court, there is time for the people who desperately need help and advice to talk about their problems and receive practical help and guidance.
Last week I popped in to see how they were getting on. I was impressed by the set-up and those running it, but more so by the verifiable results they could demonstrate, and the numerous cases they could describe showing practical examples of problem-solving for clients.
The community Advice is run by Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau incorporating Islington Citizens Advice. It follows a longer running pilot project in Plymouth. Since opening they have helped hundreds of court users with issues such as homelessness, debts, housing, family, mental health, benefits, alcohol and drug related issues.
I met Jess, a volunteer (working there one day a week) and Ross, the co-ordinator for the project who told me:-
“We work with people who are using the court and their families to give advice and help them to find out about and access support services in the community. We also provide immediate help with practical issues and offer emotional support. We are independent of the judicial process. We operate independently from other agencies in the court. The service is delivered primarily by a team of 10 volunteers and one paid staff (co-ordinator) and focuses mainly on those who are not working with probation, though we are open to all” .
Ross provided numerous case studies. I attach an edited version of one below.
I later spoke to Joanne Thomas from the Centre for Justice Innovation who proudly told me the Advice Service at Highbury was “doing an incedible job”. Joanne has previously written about the project here.
For too long the criminal justice system has been used to punish criminal acts, without addressing the causes of crime, even where the perpetrators are crying out for help. Judges, like lawyers, are not social workers, and have to uphold the law. But if we are to avoid the “revolving door” syndrome, and break the cycle of recidivism, then taking an opportunity to tackle root causes with practical help, is not only humane and just, it is likely to prove a cost-effective way to reduce crime
Paul (not his real name) was 35 years old and homeless when he attended court because of drug offences. He had a large number of previous convictions and his relationship had broken down. He was suffering severe financial hardship, receiving no income and owing money to a number of people on top of the court fines he had just received. He was also suffering from drug and alcohol dependence that was affecting his mental health. In addition, he had lost his birth certificate and wanted help to apply for a CSCS card.
Paul was empowered to make his own decisions about what to do, assisted in applying for jobseekers allowance, and referred him to a number of services for his mental health, drug and alcohol use and homelessness. He was also guided on applying for his CSCS card and birth certificate as well as helped to access support for his debts.
There were Follow up appointments. He is now in receipt of jobseekers allowance and is managing to pay his priority debt (his court fines) as well as sorting out his other debts. He has received his CSCS card and is looking for work in construction, and has received his birth certificate. He is also receiving counselling for his mental health.