Two Shelter Court Runners tell us how volunteering has given them real-life court experience.
For most, the courtroom can be quite a scary and daunting place to be in. Cases being taken to court are being treated with the highest severity as solicitors, barristers, defendants, judges and prosecutors are all on a shared path towards unravelling the truth, and by the end, negotiating a sense of justice for those involved.
For us, the courtroom is unfortunately an environment that we find ourselves in often, for the number of cases associated with evictions and poor housing that has sky-rocketed over the past year. Luckily, we have the dedication and professionalism of our Shelter Court Volunteers to thank. They help our solicitors in making sure that vulnerable people have their voices heard in court. I had the privilege of speaking with Adeyemi Ogunkoya and Keval Shah; two Law students at the University of Hertfordshire who volunteer with us as Court Runners. They help Ruth Camp, a duty solicitor and housing specialist. Ruth, with the help of our volunteers, hears her clients’ stories and they do their best to seek justice for them when presenting their case in court.
‘There’s no room for sluggishness,’ Adeyemi explains to me. He’s an accelerated Law student at Hertfordshire and is in the middle of his exams. Adeyemi joined the University in 2020 and comes across as incredibly keen. He is also a BAME advocate for Hertfordshire Law and a volunteer for the Heart Foundation Clinic. He laughs that there hasn’t been much room to do anything else but volunteer and study. The opportunity to be a Court Runner came up in a newsletter in his 2nd year of study and upon further research, he saw that we are a charity that is a ‘force for good’ and that passing up the chance to be in court would be too good to miss.
He’s gained a lot from volunteering with Ruth and tells me volunteering has given him a sense of what is required in certain areas of the career he wants to go into. ‘Volunteering with Shelter gives me a unique perspective that makes me feel like – okay, even if I’m working elsewhere, if I have the chance to give back to Shelter again, I’d like to do that. ‘When working with these clients, it’s easy to see how intimidating it can be when one is faced with something that is perceived to be a bit bigger than them… It doesn’t matter how big [you are] or how many lawyers that you bring, the law is always going to treat everyone the same.’
It’s a common phrase and something the Court Runners must remember when drafting their client’s letters. Their volunteering involves interviewing clients and taking their personal details such as; health issues, income, expenditures, property issues and landlord disputes, all of which are put before the court. No matter your socio-economic background, race, gender, class or sexual orientation, we help to provide support to those in need and for some, these factors can be dragged down by landlord’s solicitors.
Adeyemi explains to me one of the hardest parts about this whole process is seeing how landlords and their solicitors can react when met with Ruth and the volunteers. They’re aggravated, confrontational and more than likely unprepared. Adeyemi admires how Ruth’s ‘attention to detail and having a superb mental analysis when dealing with cases’ means she’s able to find holes in solicitors’ statements.
‘Seeing the smile on clients’ faces [when they leave court] doesn’t compare to anything else,’ Adeyemi explains, a smile spreading across his face. ‘There’s no gift anyone can give you that is better than putting a smile on clients’ faces. It makes me happy, and I look forward to the next day when I get to volunteer with Ruth.’
‘It’s shocking to see the situation that people are in through no fault of their own,’ says Keval, who is also an accelerated Law student at the University of Hertfordshire and a Court Runner. He came across us in a similar way that Adeyemi did, through his university and like Adeyemi, the idea of being in court intrigued Keval. Alongside his volunteer work and interest in human rights, Keval enjoys playing 5-a-side football and has used his volunteering experience as a way of learning how to listen and be patient with the clients that come to court. Keval tells me that when volunteering in court, it’s possible you can ask the right questions but still be met with clients who are reserved and withdrawn. ‘But if you just listen and allow them to talk, all the information you need comes out of their story,’ says Keval.
‘I didn’t know Shelter had this law avenue and advocated for clients in court,’ he tells me after coming back from court that very day. Keval explains that they had many clients today, all of which had to be interviewed and their cases put to the judge. What we do to help people in bad housing situations doesn’t stop at offering advice and raising awareness about the housing emergency in the UK. Our duty solicitors and volunteer Court Runners advocate for clients who have experienced poor cases of housing, are going through evictions, or have rent arrears over their heads. As an organisation, we see people at their most vulnerable and Keval explained to me why what we do for clients in court is so important.
‘Today there was a lady who almost had a panic attack, she was nervous about the whole idea of going to court. A lot of the time people believe the stereotype that you’ll go to court, and you’ll be on the spot; it will feel like being interrogated. I think a lot of people don’t understand how the court works.
‘We explained to a lady that the judge is friendly and that she won’t be asked anything directly. Ruth Camp will be speaking on her behalf, but she was still quite nervous as she’s never been to court in her life, so it’s a daunting experience.’
As we continue to rebuild ourselves from the pandemic, there are vulnerable people whose situations are still dire and whose evictions once pardoned during the pandemic, are now being uprooted.
‘It’s surprising to see families with children being evicted. I saw a client today who was probably in her late seventies who was losing her property. You see a lot of things and it makes you think that the world isn’t right because it’s affecting everyone, not just a certain type of person.’
‘No one wants to have to go to court but there are people that come who’ve had secure jobs all their lives and after the pandemic have accumulated £15,000 worth of debt and rent arrears. It’s shocking to see the situation that people are in through no fault of their own.’
Not only does Keval enjoy getting hands-on experience in court, but he also likes how volunteering with us has allowed him to see cases from start to finish. The satisfaction of seeing the results of his contribution is what makes the experience more worthwhile and it’s great to hear how like Adeyemi, the clients seeking the help they need and receiving it, is what drives Keval to volunteer with us.
‘The best moments are when you’ve done the interviewing and you’ve had a discussion with the clients, and no one knows what’s going to happen. But then you go to court and when you go to the hearing, you see how the judge makes an order in your favour. Even when the judge gives clients more time before their eviction, just that little bit of extra time or breathing space is one of the good moments.’
Keval is very nonchalant when I mention the award they gave him, and the other Court Runners as recognition for their volunteering efforts for us. Keval is dedicated to helping people and using his experience in court to simply influence the work he hopes to do in the future. He had no intention of receiving any credit for his volunteering.
Adeyemi and Keval hoped to understand the court system better when they decided to volunteer with us but ended up learning more than they ever expected.
Their volunteer experience has changed lives and with Ruth Camp, the Shelter Court Runners continue to dedicate their learning experience at university to vulnerable people who need their help the most.