Thursday, 17 November 2011

The BureauZone Crisis

Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) could use a few more like us. The adviser training course is a fulfilling and worthwhile way to familiarise yourself with the law and advice work. [This article has been approved by all relevant parties. Aspects of the account have been fictionalised to further protect parties. But this shouldn't compromise the purpose of the article.]

A Monday. New carpet smell laced with that lingering adhesive tang- the promise of the recently refurbished office space; not something I like to have greet me in the morning. But the place at least looks bright and alive. It was that afternoon’s events that made me realise what being here really meant.

I held the door open for the couple; him - tall and burly, menacing; her - short, unassuming and insipid, forcing a smile- inexpertly veiling the unmistakable anguish on her face. The man rushes past me- no eye contact, no anything. She shuffles in his trail. He presses the button for the lift and the doors open instantly. As he gets into the lift he tears in half the yellow sheet of A4 he was carrying. She approaches the same lift but the doors close on her. They don’t reopen. She keeps her gaze on the closed doors. I ask her if she’s okay and she looks at me; completely silent, vacant stare. She turns to open the door to the staircase and disappears. I’d interviewed the couple moments before. The yellow sheet of A4 was the debt form I asked them to complete before their next appointment.

I’d spent an hour with the couple. They wanted advice on how best to maximise their income. The man was impatient, arrogant and expected to leave us with a cheque for child benefits. At the time, I would have said it was the cavalier manner with which he probably approached every facet of his life that saw him unable to cooperate; after the event, I’d say it was his painfully unrealistic expectations that did it. I was left disheartened- my time and effort amounting to nothing more than mere character analysis.  

I think about how I could have done things differently; about what my natural approach would have been had I known the woman was pregnant by another man- something I discovered just days later. My immediate feeling was to treat this truth as a justification for the man’s behaviour. Then I thought more about the situation; how did she get pregnant? Was she abused? Why think about these things at all? Any combination of scenes a possibility. From that day I learnt to set aside my preconceptions along with the “what’s really going on here?” mentality; an effective lesson only available on the job.

It’s the difficult days that make an even greater reward of those times you do get to see justice along its way; helping the client identify their issue and take ownership of it; researching policy and law and delivering advice which can open up to the client new avenues they hadn’t before considered or even heard of. Many millions visit CAB and every now and then you’ll see a client whose life will be unquestionably better for it. It’s emotionally draining, it’s tough, but so rarely do you get to glimpse reality and human understanding revealing themselves to such a degree.   

In a time when Citizens Advice cuts threaten the most vulnerable, volunteers are needed now perhaps more than ever. I’ve been with my local CAB, in some capacity, for over two years, in which time i've learnt to better manage the client’s expectations - no matter how impracticable they first appear, to better manage my own expectations of the client, and ultimately to deliver an improved service. What I learn from my work as an adviser I will take forward with me into my legal career and beyond.


  1. This is an excellent piece. important too. thanks

  2. I work at CAB too. Your point is an important one really well made. What do you advise on?

  3. Thank you Devine (and mr/mrs anonymous above). I am a generalist adviser advising on anything and everything at the moment.

  4. its not what its cracked up to be. every time i call cab they ignore me. im a little peeved with them at the minute.