The charity that supports litigants in person (LiPs) is launching an expanded university-focused service this autumn, offering a mixture of in-person and online advice.
Jo Wardle, university partnerships manager at Support Through Courts (STC), said 700 law students could be involved alongside other volunteers, such as retired solicitors, at this stage.
STC provides practical and emotional support to LiPs facing the civil or family courts in a wide range of cases relating to issues such as divorce, debt, road traffic accidents or housing. It does not provide legal advice or advocacy services.
Ms Wardle said the pandemic had shown what a high level of demand there was from LiPs for online advice. STC is launching a new national service to provide online help for LiPs in December, based at Nottingham Law School.
At the regional level, seven universities have signed up to provide online and in-person support as regional hubs, either their own premises or onsite at court centres: Birmingham City, which hosts STC’s national telephone helpline, Cardiff, Leeds Beckett, Liverpool John Moores, Manchester Metropolitan, Nottingham Trent and Sheffield.
Ms Wardle said STC was talking to universities in Newcastle and London to bring the hybrid service to all the areas where it currently operates. Each university will operate as a regional hub.
She estimated that each hybrid centre could be staffed by up to 100 law student volunteers.
The national online service would be available for the “massive number” of LiPs who would be outside the reach of the hybrid centres.
STC launched an emergency appeal earlier this year, after a cut to its regular grant from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) left it with a £400,000 shortfall.
Although this had mostly been covered by the appeal, STC was left in a position of uncertainty about what it would receive from the MoJ next year.
Laura Pinkney, head of Nottingham Law School’s teaching law firm – newly rebranded as NLS Legal – said STC had relocated from Nottingham County Court to the law school, and its hybrid service would open next week.
As well as providing volunteers and offices, the law school, part of Nottingham Trent University, will be providing IT and client meeting rooms.
Ms Pinkney said the cost-of-living crisis had led to a “huge increase” in demand for help from LiPs and enquiries were going “up and up”. Appointments had already been made to see volunteers next week, via STC’s telephone helpline.
She said 24 students would work in shifts every day at the regional office, and a further 24 at the national online service, which would offer video calls on STC’s platform. At least 150 students would be needed for both services.
Volunteers from the law school have been helping the charity for seven years. They are made up of students on law degree and combined honours courses, those studying for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, legal practice course or Bar training course, and those post-graduate masters.
They could be supporting LiPs by helping explain how courts work, filling in forms, organising papers or preparing LiPs for appearing in court.
There are two full-time supervisors, with a background in volunteer management. The supervisor for the regional scheme has been appointed, with the one for the national online scheme is being recruited.
Alongside the professional supervisors are “core volunteers”, including retired lawyers, who also help to supervise.
Ms Pinkney said: “Volunteering provides really valuable legal work experience for them, which develops the students’ skills.
“It is important for them to know how to support vulnerable clients, often in distress. Their abilities in terms of time management, empathy and resilience are all things future employers will look for.”