The Free Representation Unit (FRU) was founded by a group of bar students who used to meet every week in the early 1970s in a smoke-filled room above the Griffin Inn on Clerkenwell Road. Some 33 years later, the FRU has finally gone professional, with the appointment of its first dedicated full-time director.
"It used to be a group run by students for students," comments Kelly Essery, who took on the new role last month. "The current change represents a huge cultural shift for the organisation. There's been an inability to deliver consistent growth or improve service delivery because it's been run by volunteers taking out cases themselves, possibly applying for pupillage at the same time, and who are incredibly busy. They do a fantastic job, but they've been unable to develop an overall strategy."
The FRU was set up to help the poor by providing legal services to those people that could not otherwise afford lawyers. Last August the unit moved into Bar Council offices, where it shares a floor with the Bar Pro Bono Unit (BPBU). The main differences between the two schemes are that the FRU principally assists people who live in London or the South East, whereas the bar initiative is national; and while the FRU focuses on social security, employment, criminal injuries compensation and immigration tribunals, the BPBU potentially takes on anything.
The FRU, which has 270 volunteers on its books, advises on 800 cases a year compared with the 200-300 that the BPBU undertakes. FRU representatives choose their own cases from a list of active files, whereas the bar scheme matches cases with barristers. The two schemes both refer clients to the other organisation where appropriate.
Essery joined the unit after two years as the coordinator of the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) Witness Service, which is run by the charity Victim Support. "As I settle into my role, I'll be looking at how we can continue to deliver a trusted and reliable service to clients, and clearly there's work to be done to help secure adequate funding," she says.
The unit is completely reliant on donations. Her role will be to increase management continuity, coordinate work properly, improve internal and external communication, as well as to allow the unit to progress its charitable objectives. However, Essery adds that the FRU is keen to retain the "culture" of a group that is run by a management committee completely made up of student reps.
"Prior to Kelly's appointment, elected student representatives sat on the FRU's management committee, which changed annually," comments Richard Wilmot-Smith QC, chair of the FRU's board of trustees. "Now, with the appointment of a full-time permanent director at the unit, it means we'll be able to draft and implement long-term plans for development, as well as forge solid relationships with donors and supporters."