Signpost, but not foolishly
13 April 2015
Signposting is a term of art within the voluntary sector legal world. It means to direct a client who you can’t help, or can’t help further, onto another organisation for assistance.
In theory, signposting should always be a good thing. Clients in need can be smoothly referred to the people and organisations who can help them.
But it goes wrong so often I’m often tempted to try to start an anti-signposting movement.
Signposting is only useful if you direct people to someone who might actually be able to help them. Signposting to an organisation that can’t help is just an exercise in frustration for all concerned. The client spends time knocking on the wrong doors. Often they end up being bounced around between different organisations, none of whom can help (especially aggravating when the third organisation tried to send you back to the first one). In the process they get more and more upset and annoyed. The organisations have to spend time and energy explaining that they can’t help – often to emotional people who, by this stage, feel they’re being messed about.
For example, FRU often gets calls from people looking for help with family cases.1 We’ve never provided any sort of assistance with family law. And even a cursory glance at our website will find a statement that we work in the Social Security, Employment and Criminal Injury tribunals only.
Inevitably some clients will end up in the wrong place, having got the wrong end of the stick. If you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar system, especially in a second language, you’re bound to make some wrong turns.
But in around 50% of calls, the client says ‘I’ve been given your number by X’, where ‘X’ is a solicitors firm or advice centre. Who really should know better. Sometimes ‘X’ is a judge, which can lead to difficult conversations, since the client, not unreasonably, tends to assume that the judge must know what they’re talking about.
Having said that, signposting, when it works, is so obviously a good thing that we can’t abandon it. But I propose four signposting principles:
- Never signpost a client unless you genuinely believe that you’re sending them somewhere where they might find help. Signposting a client just to get them off the phone or off your back – however tempting – is just not on. It’s not fair to the client and it’s not fair to your colleagues in other organisations.
- Never signpost a client without having done some minimal due diligence. If you’re not familiar with the people you’re suggesting, take a few minutes to google them and scan their website. Most organisations are pretty clear what they do and don’t do.
- Err on the side of caution when raising expectations. It’s much better to say ‘These people might be able to help’ than say ‘These people will definitely be able to help’ (Some clients will always hear what the want to hear, but we can do our best.)
- It’s better to say ‘I’m afraid I don’t have anything to suggest’ than to suggest something actively unhelpful or obviously daft.
And, to save anyone reading this time doing due diligence on FRU, we take on cases in the Social Security, Employment and Criminal Injury tribunals, in London and the South East (and in Nottingham). Most cases have to be referred by a registered referral agency, but we also take short (up to two day) employment cases directly. More information is available on our website: www.thefru.org.uk
We get calls for everything – I was once asked to take on a French Murder Trial, perhaps the worse match between lawyer and case ever conceived – but family cases are currently the most common. ↩