Have you ever heard of a ‘Court Chaplain’?

Most people have heard of prison chaplains and hospital chaplains, and some might have met airport chaplains, but there are very few people who are aware that there are chaplains in over 30 courts and tribunals in the UK.

A work that started in September 2002 in Leeds Combined Court, in response to the needs of the families, victims and witnesses of the Selby rail crash, has continued to grow organically since that time.

The courts have been described by His Honour Judge Clifford Bellamy, the Designated Family Judge at Coventry County Court, as ‘a sea of misery’. He recognised that all who enter our buildings, whether it be for civil, family or criminal proceedings, are under enormous stress. There is no one who is immune from it — the defendants, the litigants, the witnesses, the jurors, the lawyers, the staff and the judges themselves.

Invited to enter

It is this environment that court chaplains are invited to enter. There are a number of local arrangements between court managers and people from the local community who are the chaplains. They are normally in attendance on a part-time basis, although this can vary from situation to situation.

The chaplains are not financed by the Court Service but released from local parishes, or are members of an organisation like Workplace Ministry or, in the case of the work in Bradford, part of an independent charity set up for the purpose of supplying chaplains to the local courts.

The purpose of the chaplaincies is not for evangelism or philosophical debate, but for listening and caring — being listeners of stories and responding with the love of God. A typical day might include helping someone fill out forms that seem too complicated or to be the shoulder of a caring stranger for someone to cry on who has suffered a bereavement or is facing stress.

The chaplains are in special positions to relate to people where they are, recognise their needs, care when others will not or cannot care, bring wellbeing , and support those undergoing changes in their circumstances (whether fine or prison sentence, eviction from a home or a County Court judgment, a divorce or an adoption). The uniqueness of the role means that staff will often call upon the chaplains to sit with the court users who need someone independent of the court structure to listen.

Journey with Jesus

Although there is no overt evangelism, chaplains have had opportunities to tell something of their journey with Jesus and to share in carol services in the courts, even being asked to officiate at christenings!

The chaplains are predominantly from Christian denominations, although there is a part-time Muslim chaplain in Bradford and there are volunteer chaplains from other religions and beliefs. However, chaplaincy provides an opportunity for members to demonstrate the care of the church in the community, bringing the uniqueness of Christ into the situation.

Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor, stated: ‘Chaplaincies provide “a light at the end of the tunnel” for those who feel that the light has gone out. It is about offering hope to people who may feel that they are in a hopeless situation’.

Andrew Drury was the former policy advisor on religion and belief at the Ministry of Justice, with responsibility for the work of the court chaplains. He is on the leadership team of West Ewell Evangelical Church, Surrey.