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Best of friends?

11.11.2018

A McKenzie friend is someone who can accompany a parent to court to provide moral support. They may also take notes, help the parent find the correct papers and give advice on questions to ask witnesses. They cannot, however, speak for the parent, or run the case for them (unless permitted).

Due to the lack of availability of legal aid for most family cases since April 2013, many parents who cannot afford the cost of a solicitor, are turning to McKenzie friends for assistance. McKenzie Friends can charge for their services but are usually cheaper. The demand for professional McKenzie Friends has therefore increased.

McKenzie Friends can play a valuable role in improving access to justice and many parents feel more confident in attending court with somebody who can help them focus on the facts of the case rather than on their emotions. McKenzie Friends can help with the presentation of the case and can assist the court in dealing with the matter swiftly.

There are, however, very real concerns that McKenzie Friends are totally unregulated and are usually not insured, they may have a limited understanding of the law, fail to respect the proper limitations of their role, and consequently can provide poor advice which can have devastating consequences.

In February 2016, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales published a consultation on reforming the courts’ approach to McKenzie Friends, and the possible reform and replacement of the current Practice Guidance with, for instance, rules of court or updated Practice Guidance. It also raised the issue of how any such rules or Guidance should approach the issue of fee-charging, or ‘professional McKenzie Friends’.

Since that time, the issues in relation to McKenzie Friends has not abated and there are mounting concerns about the vulnerability of parents who are at the mercy of unqualified people with no right to redress.

 The Law Society Gazette published an article on 9 October 2018 outlining how parents breached a court order by taking their child into Ireland in defiance of an interim care order claiming they were acting on advice from a McKenzie friend.

Last month, Sam Elliott, a barrister from One Pump Court, tweeted that a McKenzie friend opponent in the family court was selling standard court forms for £2.99 and charging £75 an hour for 'legal advice' videos that were ‘negligent, plain wrong and breach confidentiality’.

Earlier this year, family lawyer and blogger Lucy Reed said she had been contacted by someone who had spent more than £7,000 on a McKenzie friend at £65 an hour.

A judiciary spokesperson this week confirmed there was no update on the plans to regulate McKenzie Friends despite repeated calls from the profession to act. Parents are therefore left in the difficult situation of trying to identify the right support with little guidance.  Sadly, it is often the more vulnerable or desperate parent that will be left with the cheapest and least effective advice.

See the full article here  https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/parents-breach-court-order-after-advice-from-mckenzie-friend/5067868.article

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