The Free Representation Unit (FRU) is a charity that provides individuals with representation that they couldn’t otherwise afford and gives junior lawyers a valuable opportunity to get practical advocacy experience.
FRU represents clients in employment tribunals, social security tribunals and a small number of criminal injuries compensation cases. FRU has a handful of staff to oversee the cases and provide advice and support to the representatives, run the office and raise funds; but the volunteers take responsibility for case preparation and advocacy in the tribunals. Cases are passed on by more than 100 referring agencies or by self-referral for some employment cases.
David Abbott has been the charity’s chief executive since June 2017. He says: “FRU owes its success to a simple model, matching unrepresented clients facing tribunals with junior lawyers seeking the opportunity to handle cases. In bringing together these two parties, we promote access to justice and help junior lawyers gain experience that will be valuable in their future careers. Without our service, some clients might not attend their hearing or would be left with the daunting prospect of representing themselves. We don’t operate a merits test when accepting referrals, but our volunteers still have a high success rate. Our simple model has been operating for 50 years, and the need for our service has grown not diminished due to legal aid cuts.”
FRU’s office is in Gray’s Inn, in the heart of the legal profession and close to several law schools. Until the covid-19 pandemic, volunteers used the office to prepare their cases, carry out research, make use of its facilities, seek advice from the legal officers, hold conferences with clients and discuss cases and tactics with fellow volunteers. FRU has now adopted a hybrid working model which includes face-to-face meetings with FRU legal officers where necessary rather than as a matter of course. FRU still hosts face-to-face client conferences and has hosted remote tribunal hearings where the client doesn’t have the wherewithal to participate from home.
With more than 300 volunteers working on cases in any given year, FRU has a rigorous training process. Would-be volunteers must attend a technical training course held remotely over several days in one of FRU’s practice areas and then complete a test. “Only about two-thirds of the volunteers pass this test at the first attempt,” explains David. “People who pass then have to observe a tribunal case and attend an office induction, at which point they’re ready to take on their first case. Volunteers can take on as few or as many cases as they wish, although many enjoy building on the skills gained in their first case and the buzz created by knowing that they did a great job for their client.”
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Allison Crabtree started volunteering with FRU when she was studying for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at The University of Law in Moorgate, continuing through her Legal Practice Course year. “I attended a training day and was attracted by the chance to do a real case,” recalls Allison. “I took the test, which was challenging but very much like one of the practical scenario-based problems I was set on the GDL. FRU has been flexible in a way that many volunteering opportunities aren’t; you have to meet with your new client quickly, stay in touch with them as things progress and be available for the tribunal date, and you often need to put in many hours of preparation, but there are no specific days or weeks to be in an office. That has made it possible for me to combine it with studying full time.”
Allison explains why FRU is useful for both would-be barristers and solicitors: “Most of the other FRU volunteers I’ve met hope to become barristers and are drawn to FRU because of the advocacy experience, but I think it’s just as helpful for aspiring solicitors. Volunteers interview clients and witnesses, draft documents and prepare bundles. And, of course, many solicitors do a lot of advocacy; in employment cases, the employer’s representative in tribunal is quite often a solicitor.”
FRU’s legal officers maintain close contact with the volunteers, particularly during the ratification process for the first case. “The legal officers oversee cases, provide support to the volunteers throughout and are always available to talk things through,” comments David. “It’s a big step to take your first case to tribunal and we’re very keen to ensure that representatives don’t feel that they’ve been thrown in at the deep end. We encourage volunteers to share their experiences and try to promote a collaborative learning experience. We always remember that we’re providing a service to clients who need to be confident that their FRU representative will do the best possible job on their behalf.”
Allison confirms the important role that FRU legal staff play: “They’re a major reason I wanted to volunteer, as they’re passionate about the work and an absolute goldmine of information. But the staff are there to help you get things right; they won’t hold your hand through the work. No one will be in your client conference or at tribunal with you. It’s your case and your responsibility. You need to develop a sense of when to ask for help and I think that’s a useful skill to take to a training contract or pupillage.”
David explains why volunteering for FRU is such good experience for people who want a career at the Bar: “The essence of being a barrister is advocacy, which is something you can only learn through practical experience. Although you practise cross-examination and making submissions on the Bar training courses, it doesn’t compare to the experience FRU offers by giving you the opportunity to appear as a representative in a tribunal. When you are in front of the judge, you know that it’s down to you and this makes it particularly rewarding, whatever the outcome. In addition, FRU provides essential experience in client care and in taking on a case that may have been prepared by the client themselves or another agency.” David also emphasises the relevance of FRU to aspiring solicitors: “A ‘magic circle’ firm, Linklaters LLP, has placed a trainee at FRU for six months of each year for several years now. Linklaters does so because it recognises the value of FRU work to solicitors, whatever field of law they eventually plan to specialise in.”
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David also highlights the other benefits of being an FRU volunteer: “We give our volunteers other experiences as they start to build their legal careers. In recent years we’ve welcomed senior legal and judicial figures to our office, including Lord Justice Ryder, Lord Goldsmith, past president of the Law Society Christina Blacklaws, and Richard Atkins KC the former chair of the Bar Council. During these visits volunteers discussed their work and current issues with these distinguished figures. Other volunteers have been interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action series or took part in a CV clinic offered by a leading chambers. One lucky volunteer even received a copy of the publication First 100 Years of Women in Law with a dedication to FRU signed by Lady Hale, then president of the Supreme Court.”
Allison adds: “FRU work helps you to develop a real feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of a case, and then see it play out with all the unpredictable things that spring up along the way. Clients and cases are very diverse – for example, you might have a seriously mentally ill client in a social security case, who’d struggle to attend their tribunal without your help, and then an employment client with a professional background who’s legally knowledgeable and well prepared. Sometimes the work is about helping a client present the facts in the clearest way and sometimes there are points of law or complicated evidential issues – I’ve cross-examined an HR director over the calendar settings on his IT network!”
FRU helps volunteers to develop the ability to put someone at ease and listen to them while keeping the legal issues in mind and getting the necessary information, explains Allison: “Clients may be very angry about how they’ve been treated at work or embarrassed to be applying for benefits and discussing personal medical issues with strangers. There can be a lot at stake financially too.”
Finally, it feels great to be praised for your work by a member of the judiciary, reflects Allison: “One of the most rewarding aspects has been the respect and appreciation I’ve received from many judges. Judges know about FRU and some have even been volunteers themselves. They appreciate that we help tribunals run more smoothly and fairly.”
This information is provided by the Free Representation Unit. For more information about FRU and how to become a volunteer, visit www.thefru.org.uk.