Guest blog: All FRU needs is love

13 September 2018

David Abbott FRU CEO

I hope that for many in the Bar the Free Representation Unit (FRU) needs no introduction. For those of you who haven't come across us we're a charity offering pro bono representation in tribunals, coupled with clinical legal education for aspiring lawyers. We specialise in social security, criminal injuries compensation and employment tribunals, both lower and upper tiers.

FRU was the first organised pro bono initiative from within the legal profession. Professor Roger Smith previously summarised the origins of FRU as follows:"[FRU] was formed in 1972 as the result of an initiative from a group of Bar students, under the name Bar Students for Legal Advice, who wrote to the Council of Legal Education charged with their training in the following terms:

You may know that there's a certain amount of unrest and disquiet among your charges about the education you are giving them. To assist you to make your students happy, quiet and satisfied, we offer you the following advice.

The students then outlined a proposal for a Poverty Law course linked to practical experience in tribunal representation". According to another account the CLE took only 24 hours to reject the proposal, so the students set up their own organisation to meet their objectives.

FRU alumni (including that original band of students) now number judges, QCs, professors, ministers and a former Prime Minister.

Our unique model is to provide pro bono representation rather than advice. We offer a training day for volunteers on social security or employment law, coupled with an introduction to client engagement, case management and some pointers on advocacy in a tribunal setting. However the real education comes through our support and supervision as the representative builds the case, meets the client and prepares their submissions or negotiates with the other party. We want our reps to succeed, but we hold them to the same high standards of ethics and competence as apply to any professional advocate. We have links to a number of law schools and aim to develop more options for students to take FRU cases as an assessed part of their academic study.

Our clients can't afford legal representation but they face proceedings which can have a profound impact on their lives. Many of our social security clients are ill or disabled and need to preserve their basic income. Our employment clients may have faced discrimination or the arbitrary loss of their rights. One client recently ended a heartfelt letter of thanks on behalf of her family with the phrase "I thank you again for being the light in dark times … for us all" which sums up what it means to people to access our support.

We also use our clients' experiences to make evidence based submissions to policy makers to try to prevent problems in the future. For example our Principal Legal Officer Michael Reed recently gave evidence to the Women & Equalities Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry into sexual harassment at work. His evidence was quoted extensively in the Committee's report and the Committee accepted one of FRU's recommendations. We've recenty provided evidence to recent consultations on the court estate, social security decision making and on employment rights.

FRU retains a strong affiliation to the Bar; our trustees are QCs who are appointed by the Chair of the Bar Council and we receive financial support from the Bar Council, the Inns, the Inns of Court and Bar Educational Trust and some chambers. More than half of our volunteer representatives want to join the Bar and we know that many chambers value FRU experience when reviewing pupillage applications.

There are many ways to get involved with our work. We receive more case referrals than we can take on, so anyone from student through to established member of the employed or self-employed Bar is encouraged to take on a case. Social Security hearings in particular are short and more straightforward to fit into a busy practice, but we also need representatives for more complex employment cases.

Barristers also contribute to our training days for new volunteers and we would also like to offer more support to our law students in finding pupillage and establishing their career. Being able to speak to employed and self-employed barristers and to hear about current legal issues would be of huge benefit to our aspiring members of the Bar. We were delighted recently to welcome Sir Ernest Ryder the Senior President of Tribunals and Lord Peter Goldsmith. Both of these distinguished visitors most valued speaking to our volunteers to hear about their challenges and successes.

Finally, FRU doesn't receive any public funding and we must raise over £500k each year to maintain our service. Many barristers and chambers do financially support us but more is very welcome. You can make a one-off or regular donation at this link https://www.justgiving.com/fru/donate. Chambers can contact me on chief.exec@thefru.org.uk or 020 7611 9567 if they would like to support FRU. We also have a lively Twitter feed at @FreeRepUnit

David Abbott FRU Chief Executive