“I’ve just found this letter and it says my son is being evicted at 9.30 tomorrow morning,” a mother says down the phone line, the panic rising in her voice. “I don’t know what to do. He’s in dire straits.”
It is already 4pm and the volunteer in a Birmingham call centre has to advise her what to do next.
This is the national helpline for Support Through Court, a charity that helps the increasing number of people trying to navigate the justice system without lawyers. The helpline cannot offer legal advice, but gives practical and emotional support to those facing court alone.
Until now its core funding came from the Ministry of Justice, but after eight years it has been pulled and the service is under threat.
The woman’s son is at work, behind on his rent and has no solicitor. The initial court hearing appears to have happened without him and time is tight.
Frankie Flannagan, the law student volunteer manning the phone, sets to work. She directs the woman online to a form where she can apply to set aside a ruling, so her son has a chance to buy time and fight his case.
Her son will need an appointment right away in their local court but it shuts at 5pm and only reopens at 9am, so they have just two half-hour windows to try to stop the bailiffs and buy time to prepare an appeal.
“There’s no guarantee because it’s really late notice,” Flannagan explains. But armed with a way to fight back, the woman thanks her effusively and dashes off to try it.
Flannagan’s next call is from someone with unpaid wages who wants to file an employment tribunal case but has no money for a lawyer.
“I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing, I’m no good with forms,” he says. She helps him find the right one and talks him through how to submit it to his local employment tribunal.
Later on, a grandmother rings another volunteer and describes in disjointed English how her baby granddaughter was adopted last month. She was not represented at the hearing and wants to know if it is possible to see her again. “I’m so desperate,” she says.
The charity’s national helpline was piloted in 2019 and has grown rapidly after the introduction of remote hearings during the pandemic. Its small team of volunteers took more than 13,000 calls in the last financial year.
Lizzy Parkes, who manages the service, says it is often the only source of help in imbalanced court battles where just one side has a lawyer.
“People are phoning us to say: ‘The other side is represented and making the court bundle for both of us, I’ve seen the evidence and they’re not putting mine in,’” she says.
“It’s like you have an Olympic sprinter against someone who just picked up running shoes. You’d never see that anywhere else and it doesn’t fit with what we think about when we think of justice and fairness.”
Ten minutes across the city from the helpline’s office, the entrance to Birmingham’s civil and family court building bustles with lawyers in suits, readying themselves for hearings with well-organised bundles of notes in lever-arch files.
But in a waiting room on the third floor, paperwork is more often found jumbled into a shopping trolley or lugged around in a split carrier bag. This is one of 20 drop-in court offices run by the charity and among the busiest.
One man clutches creased photographs of mould-covered walls and ceilings, hoping to take a landlord to court. Another is trying to file for divorce but has limited English and no idea how to fill out the form.
The service manager, Lana Afaneh, says she can often spot the people likely to need the most help from how they carry their notes. The shopping trolley cases are usually the hardest.
“We try to explain as simply as we can, but even then sometimes they’re still lost. They give us the chaos in their heads and we’ll organise it and put it into categories and explain what they need to give the judge.”
Rob, 52, arrives looking nervous in a grey T-shirt and jeans with almost no notes at all. He recently left a job as a car salesman when the company changed his role, slashed his salary from £25,000 to £19,000 and made him work more hours. They blamed Covid and never offered redundancy or a new contract.
With a wife and five-year-old son to support, he is now attempting an employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal.
He is unable to afford a lawyer and is already intimidated by the other side. “Their solicitor uses a lot of jargon that the everyday person doesn’t understand. He can be quite threatening and he says he’s going to claim costs,” Rob says.
He has come to the drop-in because he was asked for a witness statement and has no idea what that is. One of the volunteers talks him through it.
Johanna, 57, has been helped by the Birmingham service for several years, navigating child arrangements and a divorce. She escaped a violent relationship, but said her ex-husband coerced their teenage children into staying with him in the family home.
She had a lawyer for the child arrangements, but she is now fighting the financial case on her own. “Being dyslexic I struggled with words and they helped me write my personal statements to the court,” she says.
The biggest support has been emotional. “Every time I go to court I’m so overwhelmed. I’m a bag of nerves and they constantly reassure me and keep me focused. I wouldn’t have survived my journey without them.”