Alex Heron - With the help of volunteers the Personal Support Unit is helping vulnerable people to access their rights
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At 9.30am the Personal Support Unit (PSU) opened its doors at the Royal Courts of Justice. Heather* arrived at the PSU and explained that at 9.45am, she was due to be evicted. The previous day, she had lost an eviction hearing and with three school-aged children, Heather faced homelessness that morning.
Heather had asked her sister and friend to be at the property when the bailiffs arrived. As the PSU volunteer explained the options to Heather, her sister rang to say the bailiffs were there.
Heather became incredibly upset and angry at the bailiffs but the PSU volunteer calmed her down and explained that this wasn’t necessarily the end of the road. Heather made the decision to apply for an emergency hearing and the PSU volunteer helped her fill out the relevant paperwork before accompanying her to the hearing.
At the hearing, the eviction was postponed for a month to allow Heather to sell the house. Had Heather not had a PSU volunteer alongside her to calm her down and help her through the complex court procedures, it is almost certain that she would have lost her home then and there at 9.45am. Instead, she was able to return home that night, safe in the knowledge that she’d still have a home in the morning and would be able to sell the house on her own terms.
While PSU volunteers do not give legal advice, they do provide practical and emotional support, something that is invaluable in the technically complex and emotionally fraught environment of the civil and family courts.
Currently there are PSUs in 22 courts in 17 cities across England and Wales, run by 733 volunteers. As Heather’s case shows, the PSU offers a range of support from helping litigants fill out lengthy forms and explaining procedures, to offering a cup of tea or just being someone to talk to.
PSU-trained volunteers come from a broad spectrum, from law students to retired magistrates and former midwifes to teachers. This mix of experience enables the volunteers at the PSU to successfully overcome the daily challenges that they are confronted with.
Every day, cases like Heather’s happen at courts up and down the country. Fortunately for Heather, a PSU volunteer was there to help, but many are not so lucky.
Nationally, in 2009-10 more than 470,000 people received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. By 2013-14, following the LASPO cuts, that number had fallen to less than 53,000 – a drop of nearly 90%.
Year on year the PSU has seen client numbers grow. The PSU currently helps an average of 5,600 times a month up from 3,700 in 2016/17 and these numbers keep on rising. Since the LASPO cuts, the rise in clients seen by the PSU has been an effective fivefold increase.
The PSU helped people on 54,000 occasions last year but there are still many more vulnerable individuals, like Heather, going through court alone. In the next year alone, the PSU is expected to help individuals on over 60,000 occasions.
If you would like to find out a bit more about the PSU in your local community, you can contact your local PSU manager through the Location Page of the PSU website here.
Alternatively, you can find out more about supporting your local PSU, whether through fundraising events, volunteering or pro-bono help here.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality
Alex Heron is the corporate and community fundraising assistant at the Personal Support Unit.