‘I’m desperate’: Britons facing court alone relying on helpline support | legal aid

“II just found this letter that says my son will be deported at 9.30am tomorrow morning,” a mother said on the phone, panic rising in her voice. ” I do not know what to do. He is in a desperate situation.

It’s already 4 p.m. and a Birmingham call center volunteer has to tell him what to do.

This is the national helpline of Support Through Court, a charity that helps the growing number of people trying to navigate the court system without a lawyer. The helpline cannot offer legal advice, but provides practical and emotional support to people who are alone in court.

Until now, its core funding has come from the Department of Justice, but after eight years it has been withdrawn and the service is under threat.

The woman’s son is at work, behind on rent, and doesn’t have a lawyer. The initial hearing appears to have passed without him and time is running out.

Frankie Flannagan, the volunteer law student holding the phone, gets to work. She directs the woman online to a form where she can request a reversal of a decision, so her son has a chance to buy time and argue his case.

Law student Frankie Flannagan takes calls to the helpline. Photography: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Her son will need an appointment straight away at their local court but it closes at 5pm and doesn’t reopen until 9am so they only have two half hour windows to try stop bailiffs and save time to prepare an appeal.

“There’s no guarantee because this is really late notice,” says Flannagan. But armed with a way to fight back, the woman profusely thanks her and rushes to try it.

Flannagan’s next call is from someone with unpaid wages who wants to file a lawsuit with the labor court but has no money for a lawyer.

“I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m not good with forms,” he says. She helps him find the right one and tells him how to submit it to his local labor court.

Later, a grandmother calls another volunteer and describes in rambling English how her granddaughter was adopted last month. She was not represented at the hearing and wishes to know if it is possible to see her again. “I’m so desperate,” she said.

The charity’s national hotline was piloted in 2019 and grew rapidly after remote hearings were introduced during the pandemic. Its small team of volunteers answered more than 13,000 calls during the last fiscal year.

Lizzy Parkes, who runs the service, says it’s often the only source of help in lopsided legal battles where only one side has a lawyer.

“People phone us to say, ‘The other side is represented and is doing the trial for both of us, I’ve seen the evidence and they’re not putting mine in’,” she says.

Lizzy Parkes (far right) at work in the helpline office
Lizzy Parkes (far right) at work in the helpline office. Photography: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

“It’s like having an Olympic sprinter against someone who just took on running shoes. You would never see this anywhere else and it is not what we think of when we think of justice and fairness.

Ten minutes across town from the helpline office, the entrance to the Birmingham Civil and Family Court building is teeming with lawyers in suits, preparing for hearings with neatly organized bundles of notes in folders lever.

But in a third-floor waiting room, papers more often end up jumbled up in a shopping cart or dragged around in a split carrier bag. It is one of 20 walk-in hearing offices run by the charity and among the busiest.

A man clutches crumpled photographs of mold-covered walls and ceilings, hoping to sue a homeowner. Another is trying to file for divorce but has limited English and doesn’t know how to fill out the form.

Service manager Lana Afaneh says she can often spot people who may need the most help by the way they carry their notes. Trolley cases are usually the hardest.

“We try to explain as simply as possible, but even then sometimes they are still lost. They give us the chaos in their head and we’re going to organize it and categorize it and explain what they have to give the judge.

Lana Afaneh outside the Priory Courts in Birmingham
Lana Afaneh outside the Priory Courts in Birmingham. Photography: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Rob, 52, arrives nervous in a gray T-shirt and jeans with almost no marks. He recently quit a job as a car salesman when the company changed his role, cut his salary from £25,000 to £19,000 and made him work more hours. They blamed Covid and never offered a redundancy or a new contract.

With a wife and a five-year-old son to support, he is now trying a case before the labor court for unfair dismissal.

He can’t afford a lawyer and is already intimidated by the other party. “Their lawyer uses a lot of jargon that the ordinary person doesn’t understand. He can be quite threatening and he says he’s going to charge a fee,” Rob says.

He came to the reception center because he was asked for a witness statement and he has no idea what it is. One of the volunteers tells him about it.

Johanna, 57, has been helped by the Birmingham service for several years, navigating arrangements with children and a divorce. She escaped an abusive relationship, but said her ex-husband forced their teenage children to stay with him in the family home.

She had a lawyer for the arrangements with the children, but she is now fighting alone for the financial matter. “Being dyslexic, I struggled with words and they helped me write my personal statements in court,” she says.

The biggest support has been emotional. “Every time I go to court I am so overwhelmed. I’m a bag of nerves and they constantly reassure me and keep me focused. I would not have survived my trip without them.

Some names have been changed.

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