Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


What FRU does achieve

09 November 2012

Having written that I don’t think FRU matters in relation to access to justice, but does help a lot of people, it might be worth setting out some other things I think FRU achieves.

If this seems a little immodest, I can only say that a) unfortunately I can’t take any credit for the genius of FRU’s model or the work of the volunteers, and b) it’s our 40th Anniversary dinner tonight and I feel festive.

Legal education

We may not appear in a significant percentage of cases, but around 500 law students volunteer every year.1

Most – say 400 – are aspiring barristers. In 2009/10 there were 1793 people on the Bar Course. So about 20% of people training to be barristers do a case with us.2 The percentage of aspiring solicitors is much lower, but we have a lot of those too.

I do think this is an important contribution. No vocational training can replicate running a real case. FRU gives you a chance to do that at an early stage. Volunteers learn a lot from it.

I think it also enhances the rest of their education. You get more out of, say, studying advocacy, if you’ve done it for real. And, when people get into pupillage and training contracts, they’re better able to appreciate what they see their supervisor doing, and learn more from it, if they’ve tried their own wings a little.

Legal culture

Pro bono work is an important part of the legal culture. FRU does its bit to maintain that tradition.

Contributing to the law

FRU does do a significant number of appeal cases in both the Upper Tribunal and Employment Appeal Tribunal. And a few Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and European cases.3

Since appeal cases develop the law and bind the tribunals, it’s important to everyone in the system that the judges there are making the best decisions possible. That is primarily their responsibility. But I hope that by providing representation in cases where it wouldn’t otherwise exist we’re making their job a little easier – and the end result a little better.

Access to law as a career

The law in general, and the Bar in particular, is a difficult place to start a career. Despite significant effort by lots of people, it remains easier to get into if you’re from a particular background. One of the reasons for that is that a privileged background makes it easier to tick the desirable boxes in terms of academic excellence and extra-curricular baubles people are looking for.

If you don’t have those – for whatever reason – FRU can give you an opportunity to catch up. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen a number of people, who I thought ought, based on their ability to be getting pupillage, but had difficulty. Disproportionately, they didn’t fit the barristerial stereotype in terms of background, ethnicity, education and so on. In some cases I think the work they did at FRU was the difference between them making it and not.

The Bar is ever so slightly more diverse – and more meritocratic – than it would be if FRU didn’t exist.

  1. We had 532 volunteers in total last year. The vast majority are students or just graduated. 

  2. This is a very rough guess. I’d be totally unsurprised if I’m out by 10% either way. 

  3. Supreme Court is pushing it a bit. We haven’t got past the permission stage yet. 

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