We spoke with Carole Edwards, CEO of CASSPLUS, about the key elements of the service and her views on the future of the community advice model.
CASSPLUS is a community advice service in Devon and Cornwall which offers practical advice, personal support and help to access services to court users with the aim of reducing reoffending.
What makes CASSPLUS such a success?
The first thing that makes us successful is the effort we make to connect with stakeholders and partners, from criminal justice partners to services we refer to. Relationship-building in the early stages was sometimes difficult because people didn’t understand what we were there to do. Even years later, people think they know what we do but in reality, they don’t. We send our staff and volunteers to the agencies we refer to as part of their induction, so that they understand the client’s experience. However, we have rarely had frontline services we refer to send their staff to us. A court manager who visited before Covid was blown away when she came in and saw how Debbie [CASS+ Coordinator] interacted with the partners, the probation, the ushers, the clients, etc. The effort we put in to make these frontline connections enables us to pick up the phone and say “I’ve got this client, I really think they would do well to come to you. Can I send them down? Can somebody meet them there? Can you look after them?” Basically, helping them through the door.
I think the fact that we’re an open-ended service - people can come back to us if they need to - makes us a success. We go the extra mile - that's the third sector for you. That's not a criticism of people working in statutory settings, they are constrained by processes and protocols. Often the third sector gives you more flexibility. We’re the friendly face of the courts. We’re genuinely interested in people. We don’t focus on the offence. Of course, it’s relevant to our conversations, but we focus on what’s brought the person there and we connect with people. That’s very important and unique in a court context.
Finally, our success is due to careful recruitment of staff and volunteers who are passionate about what they do and want to do well for people who struggle to do well for themselves.
Can you talk about some of the challenges the service has faced?
We have a high volunteer turnover. This is because it's part of our model to develop pathways to employment for our volunteers, if that's what they want. It takes a lot of effort to keep the programme rolling, but you can also look at that positively: every time you bring somebody new in, they come with new ideas. It keeps you on your toes, it keeps you refreshed.
A big challenge is that there is still no natural focus on this demographic. It’s hard to define what we are, who we are and what we do. We work with such a wide range of people, and it’s only just starting to become more widely recognised that the courts can be a point of crisis that can be used to identify vulnerable people in need of support. At the moment, there’s just no steer within criminal justice to drive this, and how we are funded is the knock-on effect of that. A positive aspect of this is that we are a unique service, so we stand out for grant applications.
What advice would you give to other courts looking to set up a community advice service?
Just do it. Be brave!
I think it's going to be the third-sector who will drive these conversations. If you have got communities that are disadvantaged, find them, and find those third sector drivers who are going to be brave enough to do something, either in a court or in a different setting. The key is finding communities that are struggling. Ideally, we would get community advice centres in all courts. There is a real gap in support services at court.
Where do you see CASSPLUS going in the future?
HMCTS commissioned a study in collaboration with Revolving Doors, which looked at defendant engagement, and have recently announced a further study looking specifically at vulnerable defendants, which we will be consulted for. Now that HMCTS is starting to look at this, it would be helpful for us to be in a position, alongside Highbury, to be leading those conversations.
We also seem to be having more engagement from HMCTS. Our cluster manager wants to attend our next board meeting. They are more up to speed on some aspects of our work and I’ve told them about Highbury too. I have also shared our CREST evaluation with them.
I would like to think that CASSPLUS in Devon and Cornwall is fairly stable at this point, and that our conversations to go into Exeter and Barnstable might be resurrected at some stage. It is difficult at the moment: going into another local court when we are known locally is hard, expanding into a brand new site is even harder, but we just have to find one court manager who is brave enough to have a go at it.
You can learn more about the CASSPLUS service from our case study here.