The Free Representation Unit (FRU) was formed nearly 50 years ago by a group of law students that wanted to deliver a frontline service to people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access legal support.

Feeling that their legal education didn’t sufficiently prepare them for real world situations such as Tribunal work or aspects of social welfare law, the FRU has been run predominantly by junior lawyers and law students, as well as volunteers in the five decades since (it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022). One of the stated aims was to campaign for legal aid to be extended to the two areas they represent at Tribunals: social security and employment. Not only has aid not been extended since 1972, it has been retrenched.

Chief executive David Abbott

The work that FRU volunteers do continues to be a vital lifeline to many in need in the face of the devastating cuts to legal aid.

For the second year running, the FRU is The Lawyer’s charity partner, with The Lawyer Awards 2021 falling on the same week as Pro Bono Week (1 to 5 November).

For chief executive David Abbott, it’s hard to overstate how difficult it is running pro bono legal services, with the situation worsening over the last decade due to austerity affecting local authority funding, decisions about legal aid itself and the redrawing of eligibility criteria and which cases it applies to.

“The rest of our sector has lost a huge amount of resources,” Abbott says. “Whereas ten years ago some of our clients could have received legal aid for part of the preparation work on their case and come to us with a better foundation, now it is not available to them.”

Many advice agencies have also closed or cut their services considerably, while the FRU’s clients have faced increased difficulties in life – the pandemic has disrupted many people’s work life, bringing about mass redundancies and lower wages.

“This comes after 18 months of acute stress on the back of ten years of chronic stress,” Abbott points out.

Always open for business 

When the pandemic hit, there was a flurry of activity and then a hiatus while everyone worked out how to run the Tribunals in crisis conditions. Referral agencies such as Citizens Advice suspended their service so clients couldn’t make contact with them.

The FRU maintained its services throughout the pandemic, accepting new cases and holding existing cases remotely, over the telephone or video.

Abbott says that the organisation has changed its model so that it can operate more effectively as a remote service. The first challenge was moving training from face to face to virtually for new volunteers. All case preparation had previously been done in its Holborn HQ and as the FRU is essentially a legal education service, its volunteers learnt the job hands-on in the office.

There are two sides to the remote model coin. Remote hearings have helped open up access to justice, as legal hearings in formal settings make many feel uncomfortable, with some of the hearings taking place in Criminal courts.

“This makes them very stressed and nervous,” says Abbott. “For many it is a relief to appear at a Tribunal from the comfort of their home.”

On the other hand, Abbott doesn’t believe there is sufficient research into the impact and outcomes of people attending hearings remotely. This is particularly in relation to the FRU’s social security clients, many of whom are sick and disabled. Appearing remotely means that it can be difficult for Tribunal members to assess the extent of disability and make a more rounded decision without the person actually in front of them.

“What they’re appealing against is the decision about the extent of their disability,” says Abbott. “It’s a matter of public record that DWP decision making on these cases is very poor – in some Tribunals 80 per cent of cases are successful, which I think demonstrates a level of poor initial decision making. A lot of clients should never have had to make the appeal in the first place.

There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lack of information and knowledge which makes it hard for our clients to make decisions. My conclusion is that though people might feel more comfortable in attending remote hearings, it may not be to their benefit in doing so This is something we will have to evaluate in the future.”

One of the most pervasive issues in the future will be unmet legal need. There is a backlog of employment cases in the system with very long dates – some are being listed into 2023 – while others have been adjourned or have long adjournment times.

“Social security is also adapting, and the listing of those cases will regenerate with more and more people appealing against decisions that were made during lockdown, such as during their furlough period,” says Abbott.

“We are preparing ourselves for a big influx of legal work and thinking about how we can position ourselves to offer the best service to the highest number of people.”

Training the lawyers of the future

Though it is often perceived to be a larger entity, the FRU is run by a team of only nine, while everyone else is a volunteer. It is headed up by Abbott, with five legal officers as well as an office manager, bookkeeper and administrator.

The two principal legal officers are Michael Reed overseeing employment (also a part-time social security judge and additionally about to be employment judge from spring 2022 so leaving FRU after nearly 20 years) and Emma Baldwin (also a part-time social security judge) overseeing social security, with assistant legal officers Abou Kamara, Helen Moizer, Daniel Hallstrom (covering employment and social security).

A large part of FRU is training the lawyers of the future: every year the organisation appoints an assistant legal officer for employment and social security, who receives 12 months paid experience with their own cases to help them launch their legal career.

Linklaters is one of the FRU’s most important and longstanding supporters, seconding one of its trainees to the organisations for six months every year. The trainee pitches in with every aspect of the organisation, from getting involved with advocacy to supervising volunteers.

Abbott says that he’s keen to speak to other firms wishing to partner with the FRU.

“There is a perception that FRU is only related to the Bar. I want to allay that misconception,” stresses Abbott. “Linklaters recognise the benefit of the solicitor profession getting involved.

We are happy to talk with other firms about how to manage the potential stresses of law firm staff joining as volunteers.

On an employment case for example, two or three may be released on the understanding that one may represent the client in the Tribunal hearing, depending on who has most availability when the case is listed.”

The FRU also welcomes all that are keen to get involved in pro bono work in a well-supported environment.

As the organisation is an opportunity to do real world advocacy, some lawyers volunteer to develop their legal skills and broaden their professional field.

“There are also those that help because the FRU is taking cases into the Higher Courts so we need people with rights of audience,” states Abbott. “We have some senior lawyers acting in the bigger cases in High Courts and Appellate jurisdictions, doing traditional pro bono work. We are just a conduit for introducing them to the clients.”

Not all volunteers are legally qualified and the FRU offers formal training sessions, or for lawyers that don’t operate in its practices, it can train and supervise the cases.

There is no minimum requirement for hours or cases volunteers take on –  they can take on one or a dozen cases – but there is the expectation that if they take on a case they have to see it through.

“Although our volunteers are advocating in Tribunal hearings, they are also responsible for all of the case preparation until that point, covering core legal skills such as client care, client communications, ethics, resilience and legal drafting. All are equally relevant,” states Abbott.

“We have a pool of lawyers in practice, particularly barristers, who help us out in Higher Courts – we’re always looking to increase that pool – even if people want to support FRU and don’t think they can take regular cases on there is a background for us to draw on their expertise and that will be very welcome in the future.

Even if they only get involved with one client every year, it can make all the difference to that client.”

Donations to FRU can be made here.