Wanting to be a helpful person and feeling the need for some more social witness (as Quakers say) I’ve volunteered with a group called The Listening Service. The courts are an important part of how our democracy and government functions and they are in theory open buildings where any member of the public has a right to wander around and watch how it works to ensure justice is done but in reality they are very opaque in process with very little to guide the public or more importantly their users of defenders, accusers, witnesses and jury.
The service provides volunteers who are available in the corridors of Edinburgh Sheriff Court there to answer questions and provide an ear to talk to. It was set up by some people at the Methodist church who had used the court but noticed there was near to no help offered to others who used it. It was branded a multi-faith chaplaincy but this branding is going away since it doesn’t do quite what would be expected from a chaplaincy. I did a couple days training, one out of court and one in court.
I then shadowed one of the volunteers. The morning started by standing in the corridor and mostly signposting people to where they needed to be. A court room or the witness rooms etc. Many people are of course very anxious and often miss the signs but the signage is not great. After an hour most of the people knew where they had to be but they do not know when they will be needed so are standing around looking even more anxious and we had to tell quite a few people it was normal to have an unpredictable wait and just stay where they were. As time passed the corridors grew quieter and the people who were left looked even more anxious so we spoke kindly to them to ease some nerves. If your relative is arrested by the police you are held overnight and delivered to the court in the morning but the relatives often turn up knowing only that you have been arrested but no idea what for or when you will appear so often people know nothing about what will happen when the court officer finally and quietly calls the case. Not infrequently people miss the calling. The building is designed to be like a high street close and it has an open feel to it but that means it can be cold which often adds to the nervous feeling. Court cases are a slow and messy process and a simple drink driving charge can take months to complete. The hope is the service gives a friendly ear for people to moan into.