If you’ve ever had a legal quandary, such as taking an action through the small claims court or attending a tribunal, the chances are you’ve been directed to a Citizens Advice Bureau.
Founded in adversity, just days after the outbreak of World War Two, ‘Citizens Advice’, as it’s now known, is a charity offering free advice to anyone in the UK on legal and consumer rights. During 2011, the CAB advised around two million UK users.
It’s one of the UK’s best known organisations, with attitude surveys suggesting around 97% of people are aware of it. Despite this, people are often unaware of the full range of services it provides. As well as its legal services, and help with immigration matters, CAB offers services that can increase income, prevent homelessness and even save lives. Above all, its personal finance advice is under increasingly high demand in recent years amid difficult economic conditions.
John (not his real name), a 40-year-old former NHS worker, turned to the CAB for advice after graduating as a mature student and finding himself unemployed for a year with huge debts and a poor credit rating. Though no stranger to adversity - he had previously spent time living rough on the streets and had joined the army, so malnourished that he was put onto double rations - the scale of his debts - around £10,000 - was overwhelming. He was nearly evicted from home four times due to rent arrears, and at one point was just 24 hours away from eviction.
Thanks to the CAB’s advice, with just a small nominal repayment plan of £1 a month he was able to appease his creditors until he found work, with CAB staff speaking to the creditors on his behalf. “Creditors tend to be less threatening when they know CAB is involved,” he says. “Depending on what you owe, the CAB can negotiate with them to write off up to 30% of your debt, getting interests frozen.” John struggled for many years, working overtime in his job to earn more, but is now debt free.
Unfortunately, demand for the CAB’s services far outstrips their resources. Local bureaux are staffed by a mix of volunteers and staff, and increasing numbers of staff are needed to cope with vast, ever-changing and complex social legislation. There is concern about this in a climate of widespread budget cuts across the public and private sectors. CAB is used to receiving significant funding from local authorities, but this can no longer be relied upon with many having to reduce their expenditure. Similarly, some solicitors who provided legal advice on a free or reduced-cost basis can no longer afford to do so. A CAB spokesperson confirms that overall the CAB has seen a two-year reduction in funding of 21% in the year 2012/13 compared to 2010/11.
However, the harsh economic climate has indirectly brought some positive developments too: with students keen to stand out in the competitive graduate employment market, universities such as Portsmouth have been experimenting with encouraging students to volunteer at the CAB in exchange for credits towards their degree.
The unstable job market is also increasing interest in volunteering, as people not only look to the CAB for employment advice, but to enhance their CV. Gavin (not his real name) a regional bureau coordinator in the North of England, began volunteering at his local bureau because multiple disabilities affect his employment prospects. Advising other vulnerable people has brought him a sense of achievement, and, together with his social science degree, he hopes it will increase his chances of finding a job. A third of CAB volunteers eventually go into full-time education or employment.
Away from its advisory function, the CAB performs another vital role: influencing policymakers. It uses clients’ stories anonymously to produce reports and campaign on behalf of vulnerable groups in society, from new immigrants and the unemployed to consumers and people with disabilities. And it gives evidence to select committees and briefs MPs on social issues. As money becomes more scarce, the CABs’ policy work should be an asset to all of society, even to those of us fortunate enough never to have to use one.