The Free Representation Unit (known affectionately as FRU) represents those who cannot afford legal representation in social security and employment law – areas where it is not possible to get legal aid funding for representation. The charity has two goals: the first to alleviate poverty through providing access to legal representation, and the second is to provide law students and junior members of the legal profession with valuable experience that will further their careers.
The difference FRU volunteers can make is enormous. In my first term as a CPE student at City University, I undertook my first case before a social security tribunal, representing a lady with multiple health problems who was appealing the removal of her disability living allowance. In addition to successfully getting her original benefits restored, I persuaded her to apply for an additional benefit she had not previously had, and the tribunal decided to award her this for life. The additional £25 per week that this brought her makes a huge difference to someone living off benefits, particularly when they are disabled and in poor health.
Later that year, at the start of my second term of the CPE, I did my first employment tribunal. That was a lot scarier, involving cross-examinination of the Respondents witnesses, a skill I had not yet studied. My client had been employed for 18 years, ever since he had left college, and then out of the blue, without any procedures being followed or any reasons provided, he was dismissed. Again, I won at tribunal, this time succeeding in gaining more than £18,000 in compensation for my client.
Since then I have represented almost twenty FRU clients in both social security and employment law: some I have lost, some won, and many have settled. My greatest achievement was during my BVC year when I appeared in front of a High Court Judge in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and successfully overturned an Employment Tribunals interpretation of an employment contract. My client had been dismissed for refusing to work overtime unless he was paid for it. He represented himself at the original hearing and lost, but after the successful appeal I settled his case for £14,000.
The benefits of volunteering for FRU are obvious: you really can make an enormous difference to someone, and there is no doubt this provides brownie points for any legal cv. But the benefits do not end there: the FRU offices are a lovely friendly place, with legal officers able to assist you and a library with all the resources you will need. Many representatives have arrived at FRU intent on doing two cases ready for their OLPAS form/training contract application, but have ended up hanging around much longer than that! However by far the best part of volunteering for FRU is the feeling of elation you get when you know what a difference you have managed to achieve for someone else. Going back to my first social security case: my client would probably have succeeding in having her original disability benefits restored without my help. But she certainly would not have applied for the additional mobility benefit she subsequently got awarded for life. I persuaded her to do that only a couple of months after starting studying law, and nothing can beat the great feeling that gave and continues to give me.
With the recession we have naturally had an increase in both social security and employment law cases referred to us, and we are always on the look out for more volunteers. We hold training days three times a year and all our volunteers must pass a short exam in order to take out their first case. If you would like to know more about FRU, please visit our website.
Anna Macey did the CPE/GDL between 2006-07, subsequently completing the BVC and an LLM. Anna is still hunting pupillage and is currently the Treasurer of FRU (as well as continuing to volunteer with them).