Thought about volunteering for Citizens Advice?

It can’t have escaped your notice that this week has been Student Volunteering Week and Future Lawyer is delighted to flag up the opportunities available at Citizens Advice Merton and Lambeth.

Peter Bradley, the Head of People at Merton and Lambeth, has kindly agreed to answer some quick fire questions for us.

What kinds of legal issues do you see from visitors to Citizens Advice Merton and Lambeth?

Whilst we are not lawyers a lot of our work overlaps with the legal processes and principles. Often our role is to explain what something means, to talk through rights and responsibilities, and to help find options for clients. We also act a way of accessing services for the many people who don’t know where to look for help, by referring and signposting to other organisations. Our big three ‘enquiry areas’ are Benefits, Debt and Housing, closely followed by employment, family/relationships, consumer issues and immigration. But problems come in all shapes and sizes, and our doors (and phone lines) are open to everyone – whatever people are having a problem with, its our role to find a way to help.

What do you look for in a volunteer?

We don’t look for any particular background, you don’t need any prior experience, and we really value the diversity that a team of volunteers can bring. There are several different roles we recruit to, and they are designed to suit different people with different amounts of time to spare or with different interests. All of our roles involve talking to real people experiencing often quite difficult challenges, so it helps to be sensitive, comfortable talking to people and working with others – though these are skills our volunteers develop over time as well. We are all about being positive and helping people find solutions, so this kind of attitude goes a long way! Speaking a language commonly spoken in Merton and Lambeth is also a bonus!

Are there many barriers that sections of communities face when they have a legal problem?

There are too many to mention, in our experience! We try to work with people as individuals, helping build an understanding of the whole picture rather than the problem in isolation. For instance we find out about a person’s IT skills, literacy or mobility as part of thinking about what to do next. People often need our help to understand what is happening to them, what a letter means, what their options are. What could seem simple to some is often complicated for others, whoever you are.

What are the key skills you see volunteers gain during their time with you?

Volunteers tell us that they develop many skills while they are with us. Some of the more specific skills are things like interviewing, research and information skills, skills for working with people, customer care skills. Of course many find they learn a lot about housing, debt, benefits or employment, but also many tell us they learn about their community and the people in it. Most strikingly from my experience, is the number of people who tell us that volunteering has developed their confidence.

For more on the work of this busy Centre and the opportunities there, please see their recent blog post.

Thanks very much to Peter for taking the time to speak with us. Peter has worked in volunteer recruitment, training and management for the last 10 years, for an international development charity, a charity specialising in volunteer mentoring, and with Citizens Advice for the last 3 years. He also has a lot of personal experience of volunteering within organisations – as a mentor, football coach, even a gardener. He describes himself as being:

“passionate about volunteering and the contribution that volunteers can make in the community and to people’s lives, and at Citizens Advice Merton and Lambeth I see this happening every day”.

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