Help Yourself, Help Others?

We have previously reported on how the changes to legal aid and civil costs were likely to mean more people would have to act on their own behalf as litigants in person (“Going it Alone,” October 2011). The full extent of the reforms remains uncertain as the Government’s Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill remains stalled in the House of Lords. Despite the uncertainty, organisations are continuing to ready themselves for substantial change. This month we will look at the recommendations of the Civil Justice Council made in November 2011 and consider the work of one of the partnering organisations – The Personal Support Unit (PSU) – which is likely to play an increasingly important role in the legal proceedings of the future.

Of particular interest to some Diploma graduates who are new to the legal sector is the possibility of gaining practical experience of the courts by volunteering with the PSU.

Accessing Justices – the Proposed Changes

Although nothing has been finalised, it is clear that the proposed changes aimed at reducing the cost of our legal system show no signs of slowing down. Changes already made to the court system include drastic cuts to staff numbers and the closure of 49 County Courts and nearly 100 Magistrates’ courts. The problem of having fewer courts to administer justice has been made worse by a reduction in funding for agencies such as Citizens Advice or local law centres. The latest legal reforms will reduce what remains of the legal aid system to a shadow of its former self that in effect could leave the most vulnerable in society denied justice. Consider people being harassed by debt collectors (fairly or unfairly) or someone unfairly denied welfare benefits. These could be the future litigants in person who have no choice but to take their own claims to court. If you are interested in more details about the reforms, an interesting BBC podcast was released on 22 February 2012 from the Law in Action program. The podcast is called “Legal Aid Changes: Long overdue reform or denial of justice?” and is available at the following link:

The Role of the Personal Support Unit

Many in the legal profession have recognised the challenges in keeping justice at the centre of the British legal system. It is inevitable that there will be many more Claimants who will have to act as litigants in person, and they will need more support. The Personal Support Unit (PSU) is one of the new sources of advice that will naturally expand in the coming years.

The PSU was established in 2001 with the aim of providing practical and emotional (but not legal) support. They are a charitable organisation with over 200 trained volunteers. The courts the PSU currently operate in are based in Manchester (in the new the Civil Justice Centre) and London (in the Royal Courts of Justice, the principal Registry of the Family Division and Wandsworth County Court).

Working in the courts, you might expect to accompany someone around the court building or stay with them during a hearing. You might offer practical information about the court process (something you would already be able to do as a Diploma graduate) or just offer a listening ear. This type of help might seem secondary to providing full legal advice, but it can be vital to help someone be better prepared and calm for a hearing.

According the PSU website (, all they require from a volunteer is “common sense, compassion and reliability.” You would also be expected to be able to spare at least two days a month. If you are interested in obtaining unique legal experience and can spare the time, then it may be worth considering contacting the PSU.