The BBC news website is currently running a story about Rupinda Randhawa and a McKenzie Friend. She was in the midst of a legal disagreement with Social Services, who were pressing to put her youngest children forward for adoption.
Rather than seek specialist legal advice, Rupinda had approached a “professional McKenzie Friend” who, for a cost, promised to assist her. The “professional” McKenzie Friend, David Bright, ran a company called “The Parents Voice London” offering people (non-legal) assistance with their legal cases based on his ‘expertise’. Mr Bright was jailed last year for perverting the course of justice in an alternative case. Having spent considerable sums, Mrs Randhawa advised the BBC how badly let down she felt as her case, which had such serious implications for her, was mishandled.
So what is a McKenzie Friend?
When first created, the role of McKenzie friend was the courts response to help those litigating in the family court without lawyers – to provide them with help and support during their case. Normally, family matters are conducted in privacy – so only the parties could attend. A McKenzie friend could come into Court and sit next to the lay person who was arguing their case. However, their role was more than just moral support; whilst a McKenzie Friend should not present argument, they can take a note and provide support and assistance to the person who was litigating by themselves and help them prepare their case.
However, over time, this ability to be a McKenzie friend has been exploited, sometimes unscrupulously, by so called “professional” McKenzie Friends; who generally do not have any legal training whatsoever (and are not regulated by the Law Society) but promise to assist parties with their litigation – at a fee.
Unfortunately, you get the lack of expertise you are paying for. Solicitors have to qualify and they undertake training each year- a McKenzie friend has no obligations at all.
Whilst some McKenzie Friends may be helpful, it is my experience that most are not. McKenzie Friends often make a bad situation worse as their lack of training and expertise in the law mean they take poor points and aggravate matters, rather than facilitate dialogue and settlement. It is also the case that some professional McKenzie Friends unnecessarily “grandstand” in and out of court – acting like they have seen on TV how ‘lawyers behave’. Such histrionics may be impressive to their client but does not impress trained professionals, the Courts and does not make for the correct climate for negotiations and settlement, which would have normally occurred if the matter was being held by solicitors and/or barristers.
The death of Legal Aid for most types of family law problem has meant that access to Solicitors, for some people, is a problem; however, paying a McKenzie Friend who is attending Court and potentially arguing what is a life altering matter, with no greater skills or knowledge than their bravado, seems like a very poor deal indeed and is no substitute for proper and considered advice by Solicitors expert in the area of law in which your problem is founded.
The question of McKenzie Friends is one which the Law Society is urging review for whilst the narrow window which originally gave rise for McKenzie Friends is still potentially needed and helpful – the rise of the so called “professional” McKenzie Friends is simply exploiting the weak and needy for profit and poor return on that investment.
So if it is the case that you are contemplating litigating with the help of a professional McKenzie Friend it may be worth you also seeking the advice of a specialist family law Solicitor who can, at least, provide you with the correct guidance based on real knowledge and who is properly regulated by the Law Society (with all the consumer protection that the Solicitor Regulation Authority and Legal Ombudsman provides).
Indeed, in this particular situation, Ms Randhawa had paid significant sums of money which should have been more than sufficient to receive proper cogent advice.