22 July: Update on FRU response to the Coronavirus

Volunteering

As we previously reported, we are working remotely. This means that our capacity to supervise volunteers has been reduced. In addition we are receiving fewer case referrals from our referral agencies.

Lockdown had dramatically changed how tribunals are dealing with cases and hearings. At the moment, there are no physical hearings in the Social Security Tribunal, although some cases are going ahead by telephone.

A few in person hearings are happening in some Employment Tribunals now. But most of our cases are being dealt with remotely, either by being transformed into telephone case management hearings or using the HMCTS video platform to hear the case. This is a developing situation which we are monitoring carefully.

Needless to say, this combination of circumstances significantly affects the work we can do - and the opportunities we can provide to you as volunteers.

What we’re doing right now
As we previously reported we are working with a smaller number of volunteers who have recently taken on cases. This allows us to maintain a service to help as many clients as possible during this period, within the limits of our capacity. 

We will expand this group as things develop, but it is still hard to predict how the situation will evolve over the next few months.

This does mean that it isn't possible for most of you to take on cases at FRU in the short to medium term. Even in a best case scenario, we don’t expect to re-open the office and get back to anything like normal capacity until the end of the summer.

What you can do

  • Stand by for further emails about taking on cases. As we expand our capacity, we will be emailing small groups of people about taking on cases. You don't need to contact us to say that you are available to take on a case.
  • Attend future training. Many of you will have done your training in 2019, but might be worried about the deadline of 12 months from the training day to taking on a case. We have contacted affected volunteers by email.
  • Our current expectation is that we will run further training in October / November — with those volunteers being able to take on cases in December and early 2021.

Thank you for bearing with us during this unusual time.

Referring Cases

FRU is accepting referrals and we have temporarily amended our acceptance criteria
In summary:

  • We continue to accept both social security and employment cases.
  • We will now take Social Security case with hearings listed with 10 days (rather than the normal 14).
  • In the short term, we are not accepting Employment cases with hearings longer than three days.

How we are working
Staff and volunteers are still working remotely. Phone lines remain open between 2.00 - 5.00 each day and we can receive email as normal. Since we are not in the office, we do not generally have access to physical post or to photocopiers / scanners.

Our volunteers have remote access to legal resources and we are supervising them remotely. We think this is going well, but it is more time intensive.

Our volunteers can speak with clients on the phone and communicate by email: they draft and prepare documents for hearing in the usual way, and they can be present during telephone hearings. This means that our services will only be of use to those clients who can use these two methods of communication, and who can forward any additional documents to us in electronic form.

We are aware this will not suit all of your clients, which is why it is important that they understand what is possible for the time being. If you have any concerns about whether they can adapt to remote working do call us to discuss before making the referral.

What cases to refer
Some social security cases are being listed for a telephone hearing. We understand that clients may be receiving short notice of the hearing date so we have temporarily reduced the notice period to 10 days. We can take electronic referrals as long as the bundles can be scanned and emailed to us.

Employment hearings are starting to be listed for face to face hearings as well as telephone case management hearings. Employment cases with any form of hearing can still be referred but for now we will only accept cases with a hearing of 1, 2 or 3 days. We still require 14 day's notice of an employment hearing. Often our volunteers will only be able to commit to assisting with the telephone case management hearing (together with associated work such as making applications and drafting documents). But, where this is the case, we will keep the case on file and do our best to find another volunteer for the later hearing.

We know that this is not ideal and we hope it will be temporary. But, at the moment, there is really no chance that we will be able to assist a potential client with a longer hearing. Given that, it is just not fair to raise people’s expectations or to ask our referral agencies to do the significant work of making the referral.

Our self referral scheme for short employment cases is still operating, for cases with a final hearing of no more than two days. But self referral clients will also need to be able to send us documents electronically.

How to refer
Complete the referral form as normal and email it, with the referral documents to admin@thefru.org.uk. In the present circumstances, the form does not need to be signed by the client. Either confirmation from you in the accompanying email that they have understood and accept our terms or an email from them saying the same is sufficient.

Unfortunately, we currently can’t accept referrals by post.

The Future
As we all know, the situation is evolving quickly and our plans may need to change. We will try to help as many of your clients as possible given current restrictions: at present it is unclear what demand there will be. We will keep in touch, both by email and up-to-date information can also be found on our website.

We know that your services may also have been disrupted and that you may be operating with reduced resources. We would like to be as flexible as possible and I would be very happy to discuss our plans and how we can continue to work together.