The Free Representation Unit, better known as the FRU, was founded in 1972 by a group of young lawyers who wanted an opportunity to practice their advocacy skills while contributing to their community by providing free legal representation. This ethos has not changed and remains at the heart of how the FRU works. Volunteers can represent clients in social security and employment cases, and while the majority appear in first-tier tribunals, a number of cases end up in appellate tribunals. Cases are by referral from organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, COLETA, and occasionally solicitors.
Becoming a ratified representative can be a fairly lengthy process, but the FRU is now held in such high esteem by chambers and law firms that it is almost an essential item on any aspiring lawyer’s CV. This is for several reasons. Unlike mooting or debating, it is a chance to demonstrate your advocacy and conference skills in a very real setting and the quality of your work could substantially affect someone else’s life. Additionally, volunteers get a feel of how their training and studies can be applied practically. If you are thinking of specialising in employment law or social security as a field, working with the FRU is also an invaluable opportunity to start to get to know the kind of client you may find yourself working for in the future and, as a registered charity, the FRU provides free legal representation to some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Taking on cases pro bono, in a time of increasingly savage cuts to legal aid and benefits, is a gesture of social consciousness that will not go unnoticed, especially by the people you represent. By having a trained legal representative working for them and being there on the day of the hearing, a client’s chances of winning their case increase dramatically.
In order to become ratified, the first step is to create an account on the FRU’s website and sign up for a training day, which are usually held three times a year. The training days are run by the FRU legal officers, who you will work with fairly often in your first few cases as you get used to how the office works and the way in which cases are conducted and managed. The information given at the training days is incredibly useful, and you will no doubt find yourself referring back to it when you begin to conduct your cases. The next stage is to pass a written test, which will be available to download shortly after your training day.
Once you have passed your test, you will need to go along to a tribunal and observe a hearing. It is usually wise to contact the court you wish to attend in advance to arrange this. Observing a hearing, particularly one in which there are advocates present, will give you an idea of what to expect when it comes to your own case, as well as offering some insight into how to organise and present your submissions. The final preliminary stage is to attend an office induction at the FRU itself, where you will be told how to sign out a case and find further information.
Before taking on your first case, it is important to remember that once you have signed one out you will only be allowed to withdraw in exceptional circumstances. It is therefore essential that you select a case that is being heard on a day that you are actually available to attend. It is also worth bearing in mind that the FRU office is only open Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm, apart from Tuesdays when it stays open later to allow for conferences to take place. Particularly during your first case, you will need to consult and contact your legal officer fairly regularly. The FRU generally recommends giving yourself at least ten days to conduct a case, so plan ahead and think about when it would be possible to visit the office. For example, you will need to collect any post from the FRU office as they cannot forward it to you, and most conferences are held in the office too.
It is important, above all else, to remember that the case is not all about you. However nervous you might be about appearing in a tribunal, your client will probably be feeling worse. The best representatives enjoy their work and are successful for their clients, but it comes as a result of dedicated planning, clear thinking and putting the time and effort in. Being a representative is a thoroughly rewarding experience and as an organisation the FRU deserves the highest commendations. Sign up, help someone, and help yourself too.