Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


We need to talk about Sarah

04 June 2014

The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill has been floated in the Queen’s Speech and in Chris Grayling’s article. I’m not an expert in negligence, so I’m not going to comment on it from that perspective (save to say I’m a bit bemused about how it’s supposed to work).

I do want to say a few things from the perspective of someone working in the voluntary sector.

First, FRU tries to relieve the effects of poverty, by providing free representation to people who can’t afford lawyers in benefits and employment tribunals. We try to give poor people access to justice. We, I feel, act for the benefit of society.

But I’m insulted by the suggestion that this means that we should be held to a lower standard when it comes to our duties to our clients. We emphatically should not. FRU carries professional indemnity insurance and, when we make mistakes, we take responsibility for them – just as any other legal organisation should.1 The important thing is our responsibility to our clients and suggesting, in any way, that ‘It’s okay to give a shoddy service because I’m a good person doing good work’ is noxious.

I’d hope that the same attitude is common throughout the voluntary sector. I can’t imagine someone running, for example, an abseiling tower thinking it was okay to skimp on proper safety procedures because that day’s clients were disabled teenagers on a charity trip.

Secondly, again coming back to our duties to the client, I’m unimpressed by the suggestion that if you’ve done a generally reasonable job, this might excuse an act of negligence. That’s just not how things should work. Say a lawyer does a decent, or even an excellent job, on a client’s case. But then misses the deadline to appeal because they miscalculated the time-limit. They have been negligent. They may have only been negligent in a single aspect of the case, but that’s all it takes. How can it be right to say to a client ‘I’m not taking responsibility for my mistake. After all, I did lots of other things right!’?

And, again, I don’t see how that’s different in other areas. If a single mistake is serious enough to be negligent, it’s serious enough to outweigh any amount of good behaviour elsewhere.

  1. And everyone does make mistakes sometimes. That’s why even the best lawyers carry insurance. 

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