How trailblazing support service at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court is transforming lives

A general view of Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court. Picture: PA

A general view of Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court. Picture: PA - Credit: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

Stressed and confused by a stack of court fines he had inherited from his late brother, north Londoner David spiralled into ill health and loneliness.

Cllr Greg Foxsmith

Cllr Greg Foxsmith - Credit: Archant

For ordinary British people like him, the UK’s criminal justice system is increasingly difficult to understand.

Since 2010 its budget has been cut more than any other government department and in England and Wales, 258 courts have closed. The prison population and number of reoffenders are growing.

Judges, barristers and probation officers work tirelessly but often do not have the resources, skills or constitutional right to help.

In Islington, a pioneering project is trying to plug the gap.

With the help of the Community Advice service at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court, the second of its kind in the UK and the first in London, David was able to set up a plan to pay his debts.

From a tiny office opposite the building’s courtrooms, a small team of staff and volunteers has, since opening in 2015, advised more than 2,000 people from the ages of 18 to 89.

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They help those who are in the system: most often they have either they have committed petty crimes or come into the court to see loved ones stand trial. They try to deal with the underlying issues leading to them committing crime.

“They could have stolen a sandwich or something like that,” says Michelle McGuire, who runs the service.

“But then, when you look beyond that, the reason they’re doing that is because they’ve got no money, they’ve got not benefits,” she says. “And if we can get that reinstated that’s one person out of the court system.”

“It has to be a collaboration,” adds Phillippa Heath-Philpotts, a social care student from London Metropolitan University on her 40th day of a placement with the service.

Michelle and Phillippa say they ask clients: “What do you want out of this?”

The approach has worked remarkably well. The Centre for Justice Innovation, the legal charity that runs the service with funding from the Hadley Trust poverty charity, says two thirds of the problems it faces are solved within six months.

Magistrates at Highbury, who do not interfere with the service but fully support its work, say this is because through the court, where offences are being dealt with, “intervention may have its greatest impact”.

Rupert George, communications director at the Centre for Justice Innovation, explains: “When people are in court, it is often at a point of crisis. That’s often when they’re most open to other people helping them.”

Unlike Citizens Advice, the nationwide network of charities whose offices people have to visit when they need help, Community Advice goes out looking for the vulnerable.

Michelle flits around the corridor, flyers in hand, introducing herself to those waiting for hearings.

Having filled out a form describing their problem – be it to do with mental health, substance abuse, gangs or, increasingly, housing – they are either given direct help or pointed towards projects in the appropriate field.

“We go above and beyond,” says Michelle. “If we can do it, we do it.”

Interestingly, Michelle says illiteracy is a “major problem”. In this instance, she and Phillippa do their best to fill in tax and benefit forms.

But they cannot help everyone.

Although it has advised people from as far as Scotland who have committed crimes in the area, the service technically only covers four north London boroughs.

For criminal defence lawyer Greg Foxsmith, the service has been “extremely helpful” and is a model for how we can improve a justice system about which we need a “grown-up, sensible debate”.

“It’s a valuable service which should in my view be a trailblazer and rolled out to other courts,” he says. At the moment, he says, it is a “postcode lottery”: those outside north London get no help.

“If this was done with the idea of seeing how it works, I think it’s proven,” he said.