How long have you been volunteering here?
Three years now, I think.
What do you do in your role?
In my role, I specialise in employment cases. The way that tends to work is that if the general advisers see more complicated employment cases that need specialist input, they’ll refer the case to me. Occasionally, I see people who come in off the street if the ASS feels that they need specialist employment support. I tend to pick up the trickier employment cases; some of those cases we’ll obviously give advice on, and some of them we progress and support to an Employment Tribunal. I will support people who need to take their cases to law through that process.
What sorts of issues generally arise that you would handle?
I tend to get the slightly more complex ones, so these might be things such as discrimination cases, race, sex, and disability discrimination cases where it’s a bit harder to work out which piece of legislation applies. I also get unfair dismissal cases, but often they’re more complicated. They might be wrapped up in a redundancy situation, they might be wrapped up in a transfer situation, or a constructive dismissal, where specialist support would be required to look into a situation. People might have been treated badly in these situations, but have they been treated illegally? If we think they have been treated illegally, then I do a Merits Assessment. This means that I look into the strength of their case, and try to work out if I think they have a chance of succeeding if they were to take it to law.
Did you work in this field before you came to work for Citizens Advice?
Yes, my own background is in HR. I worked in that area for about 30 years, so I have a specialist background in HR. I’m supported by three employment lawyers, so if you want help on a case you can get professional support; I’m not a qualified employment lawyer, so I can get that support. They run seminars two or three times a year, so you get kept up to speed. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of good reference material on the website.
Do you think that people come here as a first point of contact or are they referred here?
It’s a mix. I see people who will have come directly; either they’ve rung in and spoken to a Telephone Assessor or they’ve come in to see an adviser who has referred them on. Also, we get people who have already initiated proceedings to go to a tribunal, and are pushed into a statutory process called Early Conciliation with ACAS. ACAS might recommend that they speak to Citizens Advice. Otherwise, they might have been to see a solicitor about supporting their case, and found that solicitors can charge thousands of pounds. I’ve had cases where people have already spent £5000 with a solicitor, but the solicitor has said that if you can’t afford it any longer, then the best thing to do is to go to Citizens Advice, so we get referrals from people coming back from solicitors. It’s a mix of cases coming.
Do you think that the public are aware enough that Citizens Advice offer these kinds of services?
Probably not. I see enough cases to keep me busy. Are there more cases out there that I could help with? Inevitably, there are. There was a regime introduced by the government about three years ago, where they imposed a fee structure on claimants: anybody who wanted to take a claim to an Employment Tribunal would have to pay between £250 to £500 to progress that claim. That got rid of a lot of complaints, because people simply didn’t have the wherewithal to progress those claims. Even though we saw them with good claims, they weren’t prepared to pay that sort of money to speculatively pursue it. Just over a year ago, that fee-charging regime was removed, so people can now go to an Employment Tribunal without paying any up-front fees. That has resolved more work coming our way, but there’s probably still a lot more out there, so there’s been a significant increase in the number of tribunal claims and there’s probably more that could come our way. Obviously a lot of claims that we take on are against local employers, so we have to be sensitive about parading our successes in terms of the local places where we’ve represented people against the employer.
How long have you been volunteering here, and what made you want to do it?
It must be about a year now. As for why I wanted to do it: it was a combination of doing something useful, plus having a little bit of an intellectual challenge and moving out of my comfort zone. Also, I had some interaction with Citizens Advice, as my friends and relatives had good experiences with them. I realised that there’s a lot of really good knowledge, and I wanted to have that knowledge anyway, because it means that I can help friends and family anyway.
What is the title of your role, and what do you do in it?
I’m a Gateway Assessor, which is essentially like a triage nurse in a hospital. I am the first to meet people, and do an assessment of their needs. I decide whether I can help them immediately, in which case I do, or whether they need more in-depth assistance, in which case we can book an hour-long assessment to go through things in detail.
How often do you manage to help clients solve their problems yourself?
I’d say about half, maybe three quarters of them we [Gateway Assessors] can solve immediately, because quite often people just need pointing in the right direction to understand where they can get information from (websites, and things like that).
Do you give any hands-on guidance to them, or is it more about signposting them?
There’s lots of really useful information on the Citizens Advice website, so that’s often a good source. If, for instance, we have a client who is dropping in with a quite specific question which can be resolved just by looking on the website, I would actually get onto the computer with them and interview them, show them the right website and ensure that they have the right link to follow it up. That often provides a simple answer to the question they have. I do this via telephone and face-to-face.
Do you think that we have a strong enough public presence, and are recent efforts to improve this going to pay off?
I think it definitely will be helpful to get a better public presence. For everyone who uses it and is aware of it, I think it’s got a good reputation. For those who aren’t aware of it, it doesn’t. Sometimes you would see Citizens Advice signs tucked away in dingy little offices in run-down parts of town, and something which perhaps gives a more positive impression would be great. For example, I would have thought that things like Cancer Research UK and those sorts of charities have a much more obvious presence as a charity than Citizens Advice does. Some of our recent work to change that will go a long way towards addressing it.
In that case, is it a question of branding? It is very clear that Cancer Research, for instance, aims to do research to fight cancer. Is that a bit more clear than Citizens Advice?
I think it is. I think that people wouldn’t know whether Citizens Advice is a charity or not, a subset of Wokingham Borough Council or what. There’s an awful lot we could do to raise awareness, and we need to be quite comfortable that, by doing it, we would get more people in. If we can do that in a way that allows us to get money in as well, then hopefully we’ll be able to handle that as well.
What I’d want people to know most of all is the amount that we can help with. I’d say to just come in and give us a try, and see if we can help.