Get the Volunteering bug: Interview with Volunteer of the Year Siobhan Tatum (Pt.1)

In March 2015 Siobhan Tatum, part-time BPTC student at The City Law School, was named Volunteer of the Year at the City Volunteering Awards. Siobhan contributed in excess of 200 hours of volunteering to various projects since starting at City in September 2014, acting as a mentor and advocate for young people who find themselves in the criminal justice system. In the first part of this two-part Q & A, Siobhan tells us about the roles she’s taken on – what they involve and what skills she has developed.

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1. You’ve been very active at volunteering in various guises in the past year – could you tell us about some of these roles?

Yes, I am currently a Lay Observer, Independent Custody Visitor, Appropriate Adult, Mentor and I have also recently started assisting at the legal advice clinic held at Blackfriars Settlement. I am also volunteering on the Your Law project at a school in London. In February I also participated in some fundraising, which lead to me being offered an internship at Shoosmiths which was very exciting and insightful.

As a Lay Observer I am allocated a schedule of courts and prisons that I am expected to attend within a 50 mile radius of my home. My schedule is allocated every six months so I have an abundant of time to organise my diary accordingly. I am usually allocated around six visits per month, but some visitors only have 2-3. It depends on your location and availability. I live on the border of three of the four regions so I get offered extra visits due to my centralised location in South Northamptonshire. I conduct all of my visits independently. Therefore, I can attend each custody suite at a time that is convenient to me. The only restrictions are that visits must be conducted within the month allocated and during opening hours. Visits can last between 45 minutes and 3 hours, depending on the location, outstanding concerns, new issues raised and the number of detainees present.

As a Lay Observer I attend custody suites in courts and prisons. During each visit I interview detainees in their cells to check on their welfare and ensure that holding conditions are adequate. As part of each interview I will ask different questions, some are recommended or compulsory but we are also encouraged to avoid being rigid and to use our instincts to tailor questions to each individual. I then consult with contractors and observe all of the facilities available to detainees to establish whether their treatment and holding conditions are adequate. I aim to resolve minor issues during my visit. More serious issues are always included in my reports which are shared with court management, contractors and various other bodies including the Ministry of Justice. Visits to prisons are conducted similarly but then the focus shifts to the welfare of prisoners during transportation from court.

I have learnt a variety of skills from this position and associate with a variety of professionals involved within the criminal justice system. This role has made me feel confident in interviewing a wide range of individuals, including those with mental health issues and those convicted of serious offences such as murder and child sex offences. Until you have been face to face with challenging individuals and conducted yourself professionally, it is impossible to comprehend how you will react. Due to my volunteering experience with prisoners, I am now confident that I can represent anyone accused of any crime without being biased, judgmental or fearful as I believe that decency is important in justice and rehabilitation.

There are a lot of retired professionals appointed as Lay Observers, so they welcome young enthusiastic individuals. If you are interested in the role of Lay Observers you can find out further information online (You may be pleased to know that if you apply and are appointed your expenses are reimbursed, so you won’t be out of pocket!)

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Moving onto my role as an Independent Custody Visitor (ICV). This role is generally very similar to the role of a Lay Observer. However, I only attend my local Police Station once or twice a month and visits are conducted with another member of the ICV team. During my visit I consult with detainees to ensure that they have been made aware of their rights while in custody and that they have been treated adequately. We also inspect custody records of detainees who provide consent, to ensure that information has been logged accurately and reviews etc have been conducted timely.

The biggest difference between this role and the role of a Lay Observer is that ICV’s are appointed independently by each Police Force, whereas Lay Observers are all appointed by the Ministry of Justice. This means that the ICV scheme is less uniformed and at times can feel less independent of police custody staff. Also Lay Observers are encouraged to use their initiative to resolve minor issues on site, whereas ICV’s are encouraged to report rather than resolve. Therefore at times I feel like I have more opportunity to promote positive change as a Lay Observer, rather than as an ICV.

Nevertheless, this has been a fantastic opportunity for gaining experience in a police custody setting and gaining contacts within my local police force. Additionally, the Independent Custody visiting Association is very aware of the roles of Appropriate Adults and Lay Observers which has led to me discovering prospective changes to these roles during my regular ICV training and when attending the annual ICV conference. The ICV annual conference was the highlight of volunteering as an ICV. During the conference I met a variety of professionals including psychologists and other healthcare professionals, senior members of the police force and senior researchers. It was a very interesting event that focused on service providers working together to prevent deaths in custody. If you are interested in this role contact your local police force to find out more information.

As mentioned above, I am also an Appropriate Adult (AA) with Catch22.  I am on call at least one night a week and the rota is usually organised a month in advance. This allows me to tailor my volunteering hours around my other commitments such as the BPTC and my family. As an Appropriate Adult I attend police interviews as an AA for youths whose parents or guardians are unable to attend. Sometime this is because they are unavailable and other times this is because they are also involved in the case as a potential suspect or victim. As an Appropriate Adult my responsibilities include ensuring that youths are fit for police interview and that they understand the interview process. Attending police interviews as an Appropriate Adult has provided me with fantastic insight into police interviews and the early stages of criminal litigation. It has also provided me with the opportunity to understand my future clients and some of the factors that contribute towards people committing offences.

2. Did you volunteer as an undergraduate too?

Yes I became interested in volunteering three years ago. I applied to become an Appropriate Adult with Catch22 and a Lay Observer through the Ministry of Justice. My applications took a while to go through. In fact there were times when I thought that I would not get appointed due to the length of time that it took due to DBS checks and training. I began volunteering for the first time as a Lay Observer 2 ½ years ago. I then commenced volunteering with Catch22 as an Appropriate Adult and Mentor 2 years ago. I began volunteering for Catch22 as part of a volunteering module towards my LLB. I am pleased that I chose this module as it gave me the ‘volunteering bug’. I also previously volunteered occasionally at my undergraduate universities monthly pro bono clinic. As part of this role I conducted legal research and drafted case notes to assist supervising legal professionals. There were also a few temporary projects that I volunteered on during my LLB.

3. What drives you to volunteer?

There was a combination of reasons why I began volunteering, in fact too many to include here. Some of my motives included broadening my opportunities to gain experience, building my confidence, keeping busy and feeling productive and supporting those who are at their most vulnerable. Volunteering has been very appealing for developing my skills and gaining experience as it provides me with flexible opportunities to work around my studies and family life. It is also an exciting way to interact with people who I may not get opportunity to otherwise meet, whether they are professionals or clients. I have met fellow volunteers from a variety of occupations including marketing, forensics, banking, teaching and civil service. Another reason why I continue to volunteer is because most of the people that I volunteer alongside are incredibly supportive. For example originally I only intended on volunteering with Catch22 for one year to assist me in completing my undergraduate volunteering module. However, two years later and I intend on volunteering with Catch22 for another 18 months because they are so supportive to their volunteers and offer a range of regular training workshops which I find very interesting. These have ranged from identifying self-harmers to understanding changes in the youth justice system and child safeguarding.

4. What has been the most significant ‘reward’ for you through these roles?

Volunteering has enabled me to feel a part of the local community. It is very rewarding when you start to see the positive effects of your hard work. In fact, this is priceless, particularly when you start to see your efforts resulting in positive changes, even if they only appear simple or small. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic to win volunteer of the year at City University’s annual volunteering awards. It was motivating to have my hard work and efforts recognised after contributing a considerable amount of time to various volunteering projects over the past three years. This is not because I volunteer with an expectation of my efforts being recognised. This achievement was important to me because as all BPTC students and junior members of the legal profession appreciate, there are times when you work so hard to keep up in a competitive environment where you can face regular knock backs, that it is comforting to occasionally receive some positive recognition from a third party to keep you motivated.

Part 2 of Siobhan’s Q & A coming up tomorrow…in the meantime why not read Siobhan’s blog The Life of an Ambitious BPTC Student, Dreaming of Pupillage.

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