Thanks to the various justice reforms implemented by the “Justice” Secretary, Chris Grayling, April 2013 began a shift in the legal aid budget that has made the chances of members of the public actually receiving help with their legal bills increasingly slim. The Law Society estimates 650,000 cases will no longer qualify, including 20,000 employment cases.
Prior to these changes, workers with claims for unfair/wrongful dismissal or discrimination could get assistance with preparing for an employment tribunal, plus representation at an appeal tribunal through legal aid. In the tax period of 2011-12 there were over 20,000 employment cases commenced under the legal aid scheme. A further 6,800 new employment cases and appeals began in the tax year 2012-13.
There will now be a cut-off point to be regarded as eligible to receive legal aid. A household income of £32,000 will not qualify and those between £14,000 and £32,000 will be subject to a thorough means test. But even those that qualify for legal aid may still be asked to contribute to the costs of their case. Depending on a person’s disposable income, this could amount to over £300.These changes mean that it will become even more difficult for some of the most desperate in society, who have genuine grievances against their employers, to access justice. It is therefore even more important that pro bono initiatives exist to help bridge the gap between the public and the tribunals.
The Free Representation Unit (FRU) was founded in 1972 and is a registered charity. It provides legal advice, case preparation and advocacy in tribunal cases for those who could not otherwise obtain legal support, for want of personal means or public funding. To provide this service, FRU trains volunteer law students and legal professionals in the early stages of their careers in the skills required to give confident and competent support in employment tribunals.
FRU’s volunteer representatives give their time for free and there are approximately 270 volunteer representatives active every year. They are responsible for the entire conduct of their cases: interviewing clients as well as taking instructions from them, liaising with the other side, negotiating settlements, drafting witness statements and other submissions, and ultimately representing their clients at the tribunals. So apart from being an excellent service assisting those in society that really need it, it is also a fantastic opportunity to gain some real hands-on experience for would-be lawyers.
John Hendy QC, Old Square Chambers, says: “My first ever appearance as an advocate was in 1972 for FRU. FRU since then has gone from strength to strength and many of the finest advocates of the Bar cut their teeth on FRU cases. Over 30 years, FRU has benefited thousands of people whose cases would otherwise have gone unrepresented.”
As a charity FRU is heavily reliant on the goodwill of those who fund it through donations or via the cost of the employment training paid for by law students who wish to become representatives. As Tony Blair once said: “FRU’s work is of great benefit to both claimants and volunteer representatives.”
I undertook and completed the training with FRU in both 2011 and 2012, finding it to be both incredibly enjoyable and engaging, and a worthy charity to be a part of. I honestly wish that work commitments at the time had allowed me to take more of an active role in case preparation. But perhaps, dear reader, this is where you might come in and take the next step that I, at the time, could not. You may be able to help someone desperate for your representation and perhaps send a message to Mr Grayling that the next generation of lawyers will not go along quietly into the night to work for Stobart Barristers, leaving those in need without a voice.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.