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Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Course trains friends for those trapped by debt
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¬†In recent years an increasing number of people in the UK have ended up in court over unpaid debts. The experience of being summoned to court can be very frightening. Spiralling debt problems can lead people to go to loan sharks charging over 300% APR, theft, prostitution, homelessness, addiction and even suicide. A new scheme is now training volunteers to befriend and support families and individuals in debt facing court appearances. Run by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust with the Vincentian Millennium Partnership - McKenzie Friends courses train volunteers to give practical help and advice. They can also accompany people to court and speak on their behalf. Paul Nicolson, from the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust said: "The case of Jean, an unemployed lone mother with four children, illustrates the need for McKenzie Friends who will act as personal supporters and advocates for individuals and families, surviving on state benefits and or the minimum wage. "Over twelve months the following cascade of oppression descended on her. Her son became 18 in November 2001 and continued in education. This resulted in confusion about the benefits she should receive. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) mistakenly stopped part of her unemployment benefit; Islington Council automatically stopped rent and council tax benefits. So the Housing Benefit department threatened her with eviction for rent arrears and then took her to court for repossession of her flat. "Meanwhile the council tax department sent the computer-generated letter threatening the bailiffs, prison and bankruptcy for non-payment of council tax arrears and another summons to court. A new official of the Child Support Agency then visited her to discuss the financial support of a father of her children, unaware that another official had already trawled through that grief, stopped her benefit saying she was uncooperative, an then re-instated the benefit when he discovered that contacting the father was impossible. Meanwhile one of her sons has emotional and behavioural difficulties. She was fined £158 by the magistrates for his truancy. "A complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman by a McKenzie Friend, resulted in the back payment of £1100 income support to Jean and an apology from the CSA. The DWP is now considering compensation. A complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman resulted in her rent and council tax accounts being returned to zero. They are also considering compensation. The fine for truancy is being appealed to the High Court. " Paul said: "We are training McKenzie Friends to offer a unique advice service guiding people through the intimidating and confusing maze of DWP, local authority and court procedures and to support them before, during and after court proceedings." He explained: "The term McKenzie Friend is derived from a High Court Judgment, which stated that everyone is entitled to a friend in court after a man called McKenzie, was denied one. Once proceedings are over it is our hope that the friend will stay in contact with people, offering one to one support to help get them back on their feet. Candidates must be non-judgmental, articulate and numerate. They must also be good listeners, committed to establishing long-term relationships with people in vulnerable situations and able to speak out with courtesy on their behalf. The need is great and we are calling for volunteers to attend our courses. The next MacKenzie Friend training course begins at St Vincent's, Carlisle Place in Victoria on 29 April. For more information contact Sr Maureen Tinkler on 0207 535 5824 or e-mail: vmp@depaultrust.org.
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