Photo by Arsheen | Greg Foxsmith with the volunteers from Community Advice

Community Advice at Highbury one year on

Greg Foxsmith

Anyone practising in criminal law is aware that the vast majority of defendants have any one (or more) of a number of complex issues or difficult challenges , which often underpin or contribute to their offending, but which the Criminal Justice system does not address. These issues can include mental health issues, drug addiction, homelessness, welfare benefit issues, domestic violence, exploitation, pressure by gang members, unemployment, depression, and more.

In some cases limited help provided comes from the probation service, but gone are the days when there was a probation “service” whose role was to “befriend the prisoner” and instead we have a fragmented, part-privatised, underfunded system whose main purpose is to punish, and, where there is a subsidiary component of help, it comes with sanctions for “non-compliance”.

Leaving the offender to seek their own help, we have also seen a steady diminution of help and advice services , both centrally and by Local Authorities, and a particularly brutal reduction in services since LASPO.

Solicitors cannot plug this gap, as a result of year-on-year Legal Aid cuts we barely have time to take meaningful instructions on cases to present a proper defence for a desirory fixed fee within an adverserial system. In earlier years a high street practice would offer a holistic service, with solicitors advising on employment law, benefits advice etc, now that rearely exists.

About 10 years ago I began mentoring ex-offenders, which I continue to do, and I have been amazed at the paucity of mentoring available compared to the potential demand, and the willingness of people to give up their time. My mentoring campaign led, accidentally, into politics, and indeed into this Town Hall where I was an elected Councillor from 2006-2014.

I never managed to establish an Islington mentoring service, but I have at least now seen the birth of an Islington mentoring project, Bridging the Gap.

Mentoring, which is time-intensive, essentially is signposting or referring clients to the right experts who can provide help with specific issues. “If only”, I sometimes mused, “there was a service where the people needing help and the volunteers who can provide it could be gathered together in one place”. It was no more than a pipe-dream.

So now I turn to the Highbury-based Community Advice service. The service that shows me that dreams can come true!

I was aware there was some kind of pilot project in Plymouth, (my home City!) I was aware of the excellent work of the Centre for Justice Innovation. And I was very aware of Highbury Corner Magistrates , my local court. But never would I have believed that somehow these threads would be drawn together to create this outstanding service.

The first time I saw it in action, I spotted somebody gliding across the waiting area, friendly, welcoming, introducing themselves to clients. Naturally I thought it was one of the infamous solicitor-touts that proliferate at Highbury court, trying to poach clients from other solicitors (fighting for scraps at the beggar’s banquet)

You cannot imagine my delight when I realised that instead this was a volunteer from the Community Advice service, offering help and advice. On subsequent visits I introduced myself to the team, and gradually met more of the volunteers. I referred my clients to them. I visited the Centre for Justice Innovation for a seminar. I blogged about the service. I am, in short, unambiguously a fan.

I tell everybody I can about this service, and was glad to see Mr Gove visited. I hope he was impressed.

So well done, and thank you to the visionaries who developed the concept, the volunteers who deliver and all those who support it. And I ask of you all one thing, support this scheme, and shout about this service from the roof-tops. We need to ensure that it survives, and that it is rolled out across London and hopefully nationally.

I look forward to the 10 year anniversary celebration!

As posted on Greg’s blog

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