The service provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau can be classified as a community information service. This term is often used generically, to include all services providing information to the population in general, but in our case information is augmented by counselling and advice which comes from the accumulated experience of the advisers. Research and constant updating in the field of laws and regulations is necessary to keep our advice accurate and appropriate.
The people who approach the Bureau for help are confused by the complexity of modern society, its laws, regulations, bureacricies and often, 'man's inhumanity to man'. At one end of the spectrum we provide simple information such as lists of educational institutions, and at the other end our work may entail considerable personal involvement with individuals who need all kinds of assistance to enable them to survive.
One service much in demand is assistance in obtaining personal documents for which our clients range from street people to newly-arrived immigrants and refugees, visitors who have been robbed or people who need a late birth registration in order to get married. This service is conducted by an expert, Shirley Hall, who has the regulations and requirements of the Department of Home Affairs at her fingertips.
When clients are referred to other agencies, they are given a written introduction as well as detailed instructions on how to get there. Records are kept to enable volunteers to continue cases handled by other helpers.
The service is offered on a one-to-one basis and is aimed at alleviating personal distress and confusion by providing free, confidential, impartial and independent advice or information on any subject to anyone who asks. The Bureau will, where necessary, approach organisations on behalf of an enquirer, and mediate between them.
In the past year one success story involved a workman who was injured through the negligence of an employer. His claim on the Workman's Compensation Fund was hindered by the liquidation of the company. We had to trace the liquidators and refer the case to pretoria but we were able to facilitate the claim, resulting in his receiving the payment to which he was entitled.
In another case we have spent much time over several months, pursuing an MVA claim for injuries suffered by the son of a woman living on the street.
The worsening economic situation has increased the need for our services, as newly urbanised Capetonians and residents of outlying districts, battle with many new laws and regulations, with ill-trained bureaucrats, ignorant employers and rapacious landlords.
Insurance and assurance policies, pension funds, UIF and workman's compensation benefits, disablity pensions, compensation, damages, are referred to us for assistance. Imprudent buying on credit and unrealistic expectations on retirement are sources of suffering. Many households are dependent on old age pensions or domestic workers' wages. Anything that reduces these forms of income adds to family distress. In some cases explanation is required, in others claims have to be forwarded through appropriate channels.
Besides listening to problems and complaints, advisers inform clients of their rights and responsibilities, explain various courses of action they may take. Clients are not told what to do but advised of the alternatives and allowed to make up their own minds.
As advisers work varying morning shifts a detailed system of documentation provides the communication link between voluntary workers from one day to the next and between the volunteers. This is maintained by the office manager and, in the absence of a computer, has been an onerous and time-consuming duty.
Since the Bureau's move from the centre of town to Roeland Street we have become less visible, and more queries arrive by telephone than in person. While the number of queries has risen in recent months we feel that we have become less familiar to the very people who need us.
The subjects of enquiries brought to us have changed in the last few years. There has been an increase in queries that fall under the heading of family relationships, such as father's rights both married and unmarried and in workplace questions such as rights in retrenchment, pension funds and industrial injury.
One reason for the increasing call on our services is the reduction in other services. The Justice Centre (Legal Aid) now only accepts defences in cases where the purported crime carries a potential sentence of three months or more imprisonment. It no longer deals with clients wishing to prosecute, and from January will concentrate on women's issues. The Consumer Council has closed, as has the Property Board. All cases that would have been referred to them now have to be dealt with in our office.
We believe that there is a need to extend both the advisers' sources of information and the means of reaching us by the use of the Internet and e-mail. Where our information is now kept in paper files and updated by hand, we would like to see computer databases. Research will be easier and faster if it is conducted by means of the Internet. As many people now have access to e-mail either at their place of employment, via internet cafes or public libraries, we hope it will be possible for them to use this method to contact us rapidly, in privacy, and have their questions answered the same way.
The rapid change in society means that not only citizens need to learn their legal rights and duties, but also our advisers need to be kept up to date and provided with knowledge and reference material.
The Bureau depends on its team of voluntary advisers. These invaluable people give their time to man the desks and lines on rotation, giving a morning at a time weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Many have supported us for years and without them we could not continue to function and they deserve acknowledgement and thanks.
In particular, Mrs Molly Small (1973), Mrs Necia Miller (1974), Mrs Evelyn Dunt (1978), Mrs Sheila Fagan (1979), Mrs Kay Upsher (1981), Mrs Shirley Hall (1984) and Mrs Elizabeth Blaine (1986) have given many hours, indeed years, of their time.
We need more volunteer advisers to keep our desks and lines manned. We would like to extend our hours of service, but without aygmented funds, as well as more volunteers, this will not be possible.
During this year HEAL moved on from the Bureau and regrettably Pat Lindgren left us to head their offices. Pat has given the Bureau several years of excellent service and leadership and we thank her for that.
This change left Sister Cecilia Bailey alone to manage the office. She has often been called upon to act as adviser as well, which has put a considerable burden on her shoulders for some five months. My special thanks go to her too.
During the year one of our life members, Mrs M L Lindsay, died. Mrs Lindsay had been a generous supporter of the Bureau and has remembered the Bureau in her will. We extend our deepest sympathy to her family.
Four of our advisers retired this year: Mrs D Parkin, Mrs L Van Zyl, Mrs J Le Fevre and Ms J Kenyon. We take this opportunity to thank them for their contribution over the years.
Our thanks are due to our sponsors, principally the Community Chest of the Western Cape, the D G Murray Trust and the P A Don Trust administered by Syfrets Trust Limited. There are however several others who have supported the Bureau: Maureen Marud of The Argus, N1 City and the City Council, as well as well-wishers and donors. Support is the life-blood of the Bureau.
Finally I would like to thank the Management Committee for their contribution to the Bureau and the fine work that it does.
Mike BosazzaPresented by Mike Bosazza at the Annual General Meeting of the Citizens' Advice Bureau held on Wednesday 27th November, 2001