We spoke with Liam Cooper, Community Advice Manager and Jenny Da Silva, Community Advice Coordinator at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.
Can you tell us a little about the service and who it’s for?
Jenny: Highbury Community Advice is an information, advice and guidance service based here at Highbury Magistrates Court. It’s available to all court users, not just defendants but victims and witness too, as well as their friends, families and supporters here at the court. Our main aim is to be able to support people at court by referring and signposting them to local community services. We provide a lot of practical help and advice, for example with court directions, but we can also sit with people and provide emotional support. That’s a big part of our role here.
Liam: We aim to be a friendly face in what can be quite a daunting and hostile setting.
What's your favourite thing about working at Highbury?
J: I have so many but I think it’s the instant gratification that you get when you are successful in helping someone. People are often unaware of what services exist locally and I enjoy being able to explain what services are available to them and signpost them to that specialist support. If we can get one of our clients the wrap-around care that they need, that’s the greatest achievement.
L: Being able to see the difference that our support can do for someone, even if it’s just to make their day at court a little easier than what they thought it would be when they walked in the door.
In what ways do you think that the court can be a challenging environment?
L: The lack of information provided to court users can be challenging. You aren’t given a specific time for your hearing, so you might be told to arrive at court for 9am but your case may not be heard until closer to 1pm. There is no access to any drinking facilities and you don’t want to leave due to the fear that you might miss your hearing. You’re stuck here and it’s the anxiety of not being able to leave once you’re here.
J: As Liam mentioned earlier, it can be a hostile place to visit. Sometimes it feels as though there’s an assumption that people are guilty before being proven innocent, instead of the other way around. There’s a judgement made about people before their case has even been heard. However, there are phenomenal people who work here and we work in collaboration with a number of agencies across the court including the Witness Service, Probation Service, list callers, solicitors, and magistrates to provide support to court users where we can.
Can you give me an example of a client success story?
J: There are so many success stories from the service, it’s hard to choose one. We had a referral from the Witness Service for a client going through a very difficult time. She really needed some support at court, and we can provide that emotional support. This has led to her feeling ready to go to counselling, which we have helped her to access. It’s been a really positive outcome for her.
COVID has impacted our ability to provide that on-the-spot advice and support, so it’s really great when we can still be there to support our clients. Just before the recent Plan B measures came into force, I handed out leaflets to everyone in the court to let them know that we would still be available remotely to help. I received a call the following day from a woman with limited English, who was feeling completely overwhelmed following her court appearance. Her husband had been in control of their finances, accommodation, and even her immigration application. When they split up, she was unable to access any benefits or housing, and was relying on friends and family for a place to stay. We managed to make an emergency referral to Hibiscus, who confirmed that they would be able to give her the wrap-around support that she needs.
L: We recently helped a client who had come back to court for sentencing following the completion of a pre-sentence report. He found himself homeless on the day as his licence conditions contained an exclusion zone which meant he was unable to return to his property. We were able to help him by getting in contact with Veteran’s Aid, a charity for ex-service people, who managed to find him emergency accommodation for that night. They assessed him the next day and he has already moved into supported accommodation. He called us yesterday to update us and he is over the moon with the support he’s received.