Thoughts from three months of volunteering at Citizens Advice by Daniel Doody

Final-year OU law student Daniel Doody discusses his experience of volunteering at Citizens Advice whilst studying W360: Justice in Action

When choosing the modules for this last year of my law degree, saying my eyes lit up for the pro bono work is an understatement. My personal reasoning for taking a law degree and essentially switching careers was mainly driven by the enjoyment of helping those around me. I found that I was a ‘go-to’ for advice in my circle of family and friends, with problems often relating to ‘how do I go about getting my money back for this’ or ‘can you write me a letter about ….’ . Now these may on the surface seem trivial but to ensure a positive outcome I always found it best to do some digging. This often left me looking company policies or what the law may say about a particular thing, then attempting to get knowledge to the best of my (then) abilities. One may call it a light-bulb moment.

Six years on from that moment I find myself working as a volunteer at my local citizens advice (CA), undertaking training to do what I’ve done countless times with friends and family, but in a methodical and far more professional way. It is only now in this final year and with a placement in CA that I can see the skills learnt over the past years finally coming to fruition, I shall go into some detail further in this blog in the months ahead.

What I have come to learn very quickly is that people who attend CA tend to fall into regular users of the service or they are aware of CA but don’t know what we do. It is well worth ten minutes of anyone’s time just having a look at the CA website and there you will see an encyclopedia of advice for all sorts of issues anyone may come across at anytime in their life! But it’s not just about giving people advice on common problems such as debt, benefits, housing etc. –  it’s about making them heard if they have a grievance and feel they may be listened to, it’s about supporting them when they may need the support (for example an employment tribunal), but the one thing I find it’s about is making them empowered and letting them know that regardless of the problem there’s always a solution.

Assisting clients isn’t as simple as just searching the internet and showing them what the answer is, to be a skilled advisor and giving the correct advice is about unpicking the information the client gives you and ascertaining what the problem is. A client may be seeking advice on how to change jobs, but after speaking with the client you may find out that the reason for them changing jobs is due to discrimination. Each problem isn’t always as clear cut as it seems, asking the right questions helps you understand the whole picture, pulling out the facts of the case and getting a detailed picture of the situation allows you to give the client the best options available to them. Skills learnt through my OU assignments have been really helpful! Be warned though – real life is not as clear as OU assessments when it comes to getting the facts that the client presents, a skill I am learning at a rapid pace!

So, 3 months into the service and it’s fair to say the training the CA give is extensive, but thorough, the majority being self-studied – something I am now well practiced in! There are small mini assessments at each stage so the training supervisor can check your progress, but it is all very relaxed and allows you to feel comfortable in learning at your pace and giving you a solid grounding in preparation for assisting those whom enter CA for assistance. Support is all around for every step of the process and by this stage of your studies I have found that you already have the skills in your toolbelt to look for the case facts and present some lawful advice and support the client has asked for. Mind you, the advice you offer isn’t always what they may want to hear or undertake! I’m fairly sure too, that by three months you will have the bug and be itching to help on every case you hear !!