Should we be using McKenzie Friends?
The removal of legal aid for most family court cases has led to a rise in the use of McKenzie Friends. A McKenzie friend is an advisor of sorts, usually not legally qualified, and is someone who can help you during your court hearing and organise paperwork for you, but who cannot talk at the court hearing. In the family field there are a number of professional McKenzie friend services, but parties should be wary of those offering services as a result of some personal need to deal with emotions arising as a result of their own family crises. Such advisors are not always dispassionate and objective.
There has been a recent report into one such McKenzie friend whose former clients have spoken of feeling ‘devastated, destroyed and distraught’ by his actions. David Bright, and his organisation The Parents’ Voice who purport to offer help in family disputes including child custody battles, were investigated by the Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC2. The programme heard testimonies from two people who said they were former clients and both claimed they were charged around £500 per month as well as one-off fees, though little to no work was done on their cases. In October last year, Bright was jailed for submitting an expert report during the trial that he knew to be false. It had been complied by his colleague and partner Claire Mann. Mann used her maiden name Silverstone and falsely claimed to be a clinical psychologist.
The Law Commission has looked closely at the use of McKenzie Friends and a consultation on the issue of paid McKenzie friends closed in June last year. The Commission proposed a ban on fee-charging McKenzie friends and recommended that all McKenzie friends sign up to a code of conduct, and that rules governing the courts’ approach to McKenzie friends be legally codified. Despite repeated requests asking when the consultation responses will be published the judiciary has yet to confirm a date.
Whilst McKenzie Friends may seem like a cheaper alternative to solicitors, if things go wrong in the case there is little a client can do to get compensation from an unregulated McKenzie friend. Seeking advice and instructing a professional family solicitor who is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority means that a client will be getting sound and competent advice about the legal issues in their case for a reasonable price.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.