Law students signing up as Free Representation Unit (FRU) advisers have been surprised to find that the cost of both the social security and employment adviser training days have risen from last year's price of £32.50 to a substantial £40 – an increase of 23%. And as they have parted with their pennies, they have noted that despite the great work FRU does, there are only three law firms listed as donors in the cash-strapped charity's most recent annual financial report...
The timing of the increase – which was implemented in September but is being keenly felt now as students sign up to FRU in the popular January registration round – is particularly bad: legal aid is being cut from social security tribunals this year, with FRU representatives among those the government is hoping will help fill the "justice gap". Not that the government actually gives FRU any money.
Arguably most galling, though, is that the price rise could easily be reversed with some pretty minor help from the wealthy City branch of the legal profession.
FRU's financial report for 2011-12 – which is publicly available on the Charity Commission website – lists Linklaters, Freshfields and Herbert Smith as the only law firms contributing to the donation-starved charity's coffers. Linklaters and Freshfields gave £37,000 and £10,000 respectively, with the amount of Herbert Smith's donation not disclosed.
In addition, the Employment Lawyers Association, whose members include City solicitors, contributed £20,000.
Law students affected by the FRU training day price rise labelled City law firms' over all very limited involvement with FRU as a reflection of their "stinginess".
One commented: "I would have thought the threat of having to pass the cost on to law students would have been a good way of helping leverage law firms into helping out with funding."
In addition, surprise been expressed at FRU's payment of almost £7,000 in auditors' fees last year.
"One would have thought that they could have got some help from the 'Big Four' [accountancy firms] if nothing else," said a student.
For its part, FRU stresses its gratitude to its donors while pointing out how a structural deficit has compelled it "to maximise all our income streams". Speaking to Legal Cheek, the body's chief executive, Karen Mackay, explained that its training income stream is very important to FRU, accounting for 17% of its income in 2011-12.
She added: "In order to ensure that FRU continues as a going concern, we very reluctantly decided to increase the training fee for FRU volunteers from £32.50 to £40 with effect from September 2012. We undertook that this fee would not increase further for at least a year. The increase in fee over a year will bring in an estimated £15,000, which will go to addressing FRU’s structural deficit. It should be noted that we have not had any noticeable falling off of bookings for the training courses or any complaints about the increase in fees."
Mackay also said that FRU "will be looking at means of increasing other income streams, including extending and strengthening our existing donor base."
Donations can be made to FRU through JustGiving.