New research on McKenzie Friends
Last month we reported on the growing concerns many legal professionals have over members of the public using McKenzie Friends when trying to deal with family based issues through the Court (Should we be using McKenzie Friends?). Now a new research paper has been published looking further into this issue and where exactly in the process a person may seek the assistance of a McKenzie Friend and the motivations behind a McKenzie Friend charging for their services.
The research paper is entitled A study of fee-charging McKenzie Friends and their work in private family law cases and was conducted by legal academics Dr Leanne Smith of Cardiff University, Dr Emma Hitchings of the University of Bristol and Mark Sefton, an independent legal researcher. The paper reveals that paid McKenzie Friends vary in their motivations for carrying out work as a McKenzie Friend. These range from ‘business opportunists’, through ‘good Samaritans’ to ‘family justice crusaders’ and ‘rogues’.
The research also found that most paid McKenzie Friends prefer not to represent their clients in court. This seems a little ironic since the term McKenzie Friend was born out of a court case where a litigant in person sought to have permission for an Australian barrister to represent him in court in England and Wales. The research suggests that McKenzie Friends predominantly offer legal advice and personal support to clients before a case goes to court and if it appears their client will need to be represented during court hearings, most McKenzie Friends prefer to return the client at that point to a direct access barrister so the client gets the specialist assistance of a qualified lawyer.
Among the Mckenzie Friends who took part in the study, there seems to be evidence of a strong orientation towards settling cases outside court, and a majority had gleaned some knowledge and procedural awareness from their experience to enable them to mitigate the difficulties experienced by many unassisted litigants in person. However, the study also found that McKenzie Friends vary in their perceptions of which tasks fall beyond the boundaries of their proper role.
This research will no doubt add to the debate about whether McKenzie Friends should be allowed to charge for their services and if so, whether they should all be regulated to give consumers better protection if things go wrong. However, at the moment 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.