The objective of Justice Week is to emphasise the importance of legal services, access to justice for all and the rule of law. The work of the Free Representation Unit (FRU) demonstrates all of these.
FRU is a unique institution that this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. We alleviate poverty by providing free legal representation for people who can’t afford it. We train aspiring lawyers, who act for free. Our clients benefit by having someone who understands the relevant law and can navigate complex legal hearings. Our volunteers benefit because there are few opportunities before qualification to have genuine ownership of a legal case including representing the client at the hearing.
As we have been going for 50 years many now eminent lawyers tell us that they took their first real case with FRU.
Why is this necessary? The law students who founded FRU in 1972 identified two issues. Firstly, tribunal hearings are intended to be user friendly, less formal ways of resolving disputes. However, in practice, with the best will in the world they deal with complex statute and case law and there’s only so much the tribunal can do to facilitate a litigant to put their case.
People who didn’t have a lawyer were and are at a disadvantage. The outcome of a tribunal hearing can have a life-changing impact on a client.
Social security tribunals decide on qualification for basic income. We frequently represent people where an additional £156.90 per week is at stake. It is hard to overstate the impact of receiving over £8,000 per year additional income for a sick or disabled person. Social security law is highly complex, and incredibly legal aid is not available for most people for these cases. Attending a tribunal where so much rests on the outcome and the proceedings are so unfamiliar can be overwhelming.
One of our clients recently told us that "It felt like I was "done up like a kipper" but thrown a lifeline at the 11th hour !" He believed he had no prospect of success, but then FRU stepped in to represent him. The sense of relief in this statement is strong. Ordinary people don’t feel that they can give a good account of themselves or their case, especially if the other party is legally represented.
Our volunteers are calm and reassuring. They have done the necessary legal research and have all the facts and the law at their fingertips. They understand tribunal processes and can do complex things like cross examine witnesses and make legal submissions.
The second reason that FRU was set up was that FRU’s founders in 1972 didn’t feel that training and education for lawyers prepared them for the real world. They particularly felt that it didn’t cover social welfare law like housing, employment and social security issues. They decided to gain practical skills by representing clients in tribunal hearings. 50 years later legal education has been transformed. Many law schools have law clinics where students can give legal advice under supervision. There are still not many ways to gain the experience of managing a case to its conclusion, including representing the client in a real legal hearing. FRU gives aspiring lawyers this experience.
Competition to gain a training contract for solicitors or pupillage for a barrister is intense. There is a perception that it is easier to get on if you come from a legal background or have attended particular universities. Gaining practical experience with FRU gives aspiring lawyers something concrete to demonstrate their skills and commitment. It opens up the law to a wider group of people. It gives lawyers at the start of their career an understanding of how law impacts on ordinary people’s lives and sparks an early commitment to pro bono work.
We believe that we live in a society governed by the rule of law – clear and agreed rules by which we all live our lives. The rule of law only really works when everyone understands the laws and can get help in making their case. Access to justice means not just physical access to a formal adjudicator. It is no use being able to attend a hearing that you don’t understand and where you don’t know what the judge requires to make their decision. Legal services for clients like the people who use FRU have been decimated in recent years. There are now ‘advice deserts’ – areas where no affordable legal advice is available in the UK. Every day desperate people contact FRU asking for representation in areas of law that we don’t cover. Our service is small – we can only represent hundreds of people each year when there are tens of thousands of people who need help. But for every client that we do help that help is crucial to them – it enables them to feel that they have had access to justice.
If you would like to support our work please donate to our 50kfor50 fundraising campaign.
David Abbott is the Chief Executive of the Free Representation Unit.