Eileen Pereira, Support Through Court’s former chief executive, talks about the charity’s urgent campaign to raise money after the Ministry of Justice suddenly withdrew its funding

A few days after I spoke to Support Through Court’s former chief executive, Eileen Pereira (pictured above), the charity announced its urgent appeal had beaten its £400,000 target. ‘With the help of our wonderful community of supporters, law firms and organisations, we’re able to continue to be there for people facing court alone,’ it tweeted.

Having recently met some of the team behind the charity, which each year provides support to thousands of people who face court alone, I was delighted for them. The last few months have been ‘intense’, Pereira told the Gazette over the phone.

Pereira was due to retire last Christmas, but stayed on for another seven months. Late last year the charity, which had been receiving annual core funding of £540,000 from the Ministry of Justice for nearly a decade, was informed that the MoJ was developing plans for a new grant that would involve a competitive tender process. One-year grants would end on 31 March.

‘When I walked out the door on 29 July, I didn’t realise what pressure I’d been under,’ Pereira said. ‘The level of stress I was shouldering with my team, knowing we had to be on the ball every day, making sure everything was working; but also trying to raise money, talking to people.’

Pereira is proud of the team she left behind. ‘They’ve continued to provide an amazing service to people who really need it, seeing people who are very vulnerable, supporting people at a crux in their lives they probably never thought they would be at.’ But she remains concerned ‘because they are still under that pressure’.

The MoJ extended funding until the end of June to allow charities to plan ahead. However, knowing little about the time frame or eligibility criteria for the new grant, Support Through Court launched an urgent appeal to make up a £400,000 shortfall – or risk closing some of its services.

'If we’d been spoken to at the beginning and told the government was considering making this change, we’d have had an opportunity to inform them what it would mean and how it would affect people they want to serve – litigants in person'

Eileen Pereira, former CEO, Support Through Court

Sadly, the charity had to make six redundancies in July. Universities have been a ‘saving grace’, Pereira said. ‘Initially, we thought we’d have to make as many as 16 redundancies. Since then, we’ve worked with universities to save the units… We had an overwhelming response from them. It’s astonishing quite how many wanted to take us on.’

In August, Support Through Court announced that it had teamed up with Nottingham Trent, Cardiff, Birmingham City, Leeds Beckett and Sheffield universities to keep services running. Most of the services will be based in university accommodation. The service in Cardiff will continue at the Civil Justice Centre. A remote service, Support Through Court Online, will begin later this year in partnership with Nottingham Trent.

The charity’s urgent appeal eventually raised £415,586. The total includes transitional funding from the government to help the charity through to the end of September; and a donation of nearly £60,000 from Martin Lewis, founder of the MoneySavingExpert website, to fund the London-based Central Family Court service for two years.

‘We reached out to him. He’s such a busy man but still made the time to talk to us,’ Pereira said.

Lewis told his 1.7 million Twitter followers: ‘Against my principles, I’ve today funded Support Through Court’s Central FAMILY Court help. For true justice, everyone, regardless of means, needs access to the courts. First legal aid was cut. Now volunteer funds. A private individual shouldn’t fund this.’

In July, the MoJ finally revealed details of the new grant. The funding will be administered by the Access to Justice Foundation, which expects to award grants of £25,000 to £75,000. These grants will need to be spent by successful applicants between 17 October 2022 and 31 March 2023.

I concluded by asking Pereira to offer one piece of constructive advice she would give to government.

‘If you’re going to change something, consult with the people you’re going to change it for. If we’d been spoken to at the beginning of [the 2021/22 financial year] and told the government was considering making this change, we would have had an opportunity to inform them what it would mean and how it would affect people they want to serve – litigants in person.’