FRU was the brainchild of David Guy, then a student member of Gray’s Inn and now a barrister at Tanfield Chambers. He had spent time as a tribunal member of a Supplementary Benefits Appeal Tribunal (the predecessor to the Social Security Appeal Tribunal) and had seen first-hand the poor standard of justice that was being meted out: tribunal members did not know the law and the Departmental presenting officer would sit as though part of the tribunal. He felt, as did many of his contemporaries, that something needed to be done. Another impetus was the report on legal education in 1971 by Sir Roger Ormrod, who concluded that that education was failing to train lawyers sufficiently well and that it should continue post-qualification. John Hendy QC recalls that at the time, there was a recognition of the extent to which access to the law could remedy the problem of poverty. He describes FRU as “a brilliant combination of a desire to be of assistance and a recognition that in fact it was quite a useful enhancement of the training for the Bar.” The original members also remember it as being ‘slightly underground but highly social’, something which you might feel reluctant about putting on your CV. One of those original members, Nicholas Blake, now Mr. Justice Blake, says that involvement with FRU builds students’ confidence in their ‘ability to elucidate, communicate and advocate’. It is now something that chambers expect to see on a CV.

In February 1972, Mr Guy and three others, all Bar students from each of the Inns of Court, wrote an open letter to the Council of Legal Education (‘CLE’) in the Gray’s Inn student paper, Grayhound, with a plan for improving the Bar course. They called themselves ‘Bar Students for Legal Advice’ (‘BSFLA’). They wrote: “You may know that there’s a certain amount of unrest and disquiet among your charges about the education you are giving them. To assist you to make your charges happy, quiet and satisfied, we offer the following advice.”* The letter proposed that Poverty Law should become part of the Bar Course and that students should gain practical experience through representation in tribunals and participation in a Legal Advice Clinic.

Despite a ‘cordial’ meeting where the students wore ‘their best suits’, the CLE did not support them. BSFLA ended up going to the College of Law, who agreed to give the group a telephone number and the services of a receptionist. One of the sources of cases was the Child Poverty Action Group (where the then solicitor Henry Hodge, later Mr. Justice Hodge, then practised) as well as a number of Citizens Advice Bureaux. Referrals would come in to the College of Law switchboard from the various organisations. Cases were assigned to volunteers during weekly meetings, which took place in a pub (originally the Griffin on Theobalds Road, then the Calthorpe Arms on Grays Inn Road and finally the Three Tuns on Chancery Lane). During the meetings, volunteers would report back on cases during the week and the substance of the law and upcoming cases would be discussed.

By December 1972, BSFLA had acquired the name FRU and had been involved in approximately 30 cases**. The first one to reach the law reports was Coates v Crispin Ltd [1973] ICR 413 which was heard in the short-lived National Industrial Relations Court (‘NIRC’). Peter Burbidge, the representative in the case, now an academic at the University of Westminister, recalls being summoned privately by the President of the NIRC, Sir John Donaldson, whereupon he had to explain exactly what FRU was. He won the case and was successful in establishing an important legal point. He recalls finishing a Bar exam and then ‘hot-footing’ it over to the NIRC to take judgment.

Within a few years of its establishment, the Bar quite “sensibly and quickly saw in FRU the advantages for it in public relations terms and also as a fulfillment of what most barristers regard as their duty to further the interests of justice.” (John Hendy QC). Today the Bar Council is FRU’s biggest supporter.

... and forty years on

Forty years later, FRU is an organisation which, having begun life as a group of altruistic Bar students, has grown into a thriving charity. It employs seven members of staff (six full-time and one part-time) whose work is overseen by a dedicated team of trustees comprised of leading members of the Bar. Last year FRU volunteers represented 1168 clients in social security, employment and criminal injury cases in a variety of tribunals including a recent case in the Court of Justice of the European Union. Training is key. Today, FRU volunteers must complete a ratification process by attending a training day, passing a written test and observing a tribunal before being able to conduct a case in their own right, under supervision.

FRU has managed to achieve this level of growth whilst remaining true to its student origins. In the words of the current Senior Trustee, John McCaughran QC, “Notwithstanding the changes and progress that FRU has made [since 1972]... its essential spirit remains unchanged and undaunted. This is due to the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers who do cases. The organisation promotes excellence in advocacy and the Bar as a whole stands to benefit on an ongoing basis from the excellent work that it does.”

FRU has been successful in recent years in expanding the services it provides - there is now a pilot FRU project in Nottingham, the first outside London. The number of cases it is able to take on has increased although, by virtue of being a voluntary organisation, it cannot take on every case it is referred. FRU’s growth in work has led to a corresponding increase in running costs and financial pressures; the Unit’s annual running costs total approximately £390,000. FRU relies on the generosity of its supporters to continue its work. John Hendy QC participates in the 110km Bike Race in South Africa, people enter the London Marathon to raise money for FRU, and a three year subscription to Equality Law Reports has just been donated by Michael Rubenstein.

“Step up for FRU” campaign

To mark its 40th anniversary, FRU is planning a campaign called “Step up for FRU”. Chambers will be given the  opportunity to nominate FRU as their charity of the year and their fundraising activities will raise money for FRU throughout 2012. This is an excellent opportunity for chambers to improve links with FRU and to raise money for a worthwhile cause.

The founders of FRU did not imagine that the model they developed would have such durability and that it would still exist four decades later; still less that it would be part of the legal establishment. It is only with the continued support of the legal community that FRU will be able to continue to deal with the pressing issue of unmet legal need.

For more information about FRU or about the Step up For FRU campaign, contact Karen Mackay on

* Grayhound, 16.02.72
** Grayhound, 13.12.72