For Day 14 of my 21 Days of Transience, I’m taking a look at one of my voluntary roles…

These days I wear a variety of hats, some of which yield an income, some of which don’t.

And one day a week I turn my small back bedroom office into a mini-call centre, don my earphones and stand by to take calls as a volunteer on the Support Through Court national helpline.

This is a charity that provides practical support to litigants in person, those who are involved in making a civil court claim — or defending one — but can’t afford a lawyer and are not eligible for legal aid. Their numbers grow year on year as the legal aid budget gets repeatedly cut back, and every shift brings fresh snapshots of suffering.

We can’t offer our clients legal advice: although some STC volunteers come from a legal background, that’s not what we’re here for. We are instead here to help them navigate the utterly baffling (and often incompetent) English and Welsh courts and tribunals system, help them find clarity, signpost them to other sources of help, and empower them for what lies ahead.

Before the events of 2020, STC offered a face-to-face service, and I volunteered two days a month at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Now — for the time being anyway — we can only offer a remote service,  either locally or via the national helpline. This has its pluses and minuses, for both us volunteers and — more importantly — for our clients.

It’s a cliche to say that no two shifts are the same, but here it really is true. When I take a call I have absolutely no idea who will be on the other end or what issue they are facing. Sadly, the number of family breakdowns has grown exponentially over the last 12 months, and much of our work currently pivots around helping clients trying to gain or prevent access to their children. 

Other collateral damage we’re seeing includes a rapidly rising number of employment-related issues, housing issues, and — increasingly — people drowning in debt after losing their livelihoods. 

As volunteers we have to remain professional throughout and must avoid doing anything other than offering the guidance we’re there to offer. And yes, sometimes, it’s hard to remain completely disengaged as it’s part of being human to feel the need to both empathise and sympathise. 

My aim is to ensure no call ends without the client knowing what they need to do next, how they go about it, and to leave with a realistic picture of about how things should pan out. Most of the time when my shift ends, I’m once again left humbled and hugely grateful for all that I have. And I move on.

But occasionally — maybe one call every couple of weeks — I know I have made a more significant difference than the objective support I’ve given. ‘I feel so much better now,’ or, ‘I was so worried before I called and now it’s all much clearer,’ or, ‘I’ve got the confidence to see this through now,’ or — memorably and heartbreakingly — ‘you’ve given me back the will to live’.

These are the calls where I wish I were able to find out what happened next, whether the client did find a way through an often brutal legal system and achieve what they set out to do: seeing their children again, for example, or winning their unfair dismissal claim, or successfully defending a money claim I could see was patently unfair. 

And when this happens, I recognise that I have — in a small way, in this virtual space — left a transient but significant mark on their lives, and they in turn have left theirs on mine. 

Image: MotortionFilms at Shutterstock