If you’re involved in proceedings in the Family Court, you may understandably want to have someone at your side to support you or ‘fight your corner’; however, given that these proceedings are held in private – for example, there is no public gallery as we find in crown court proceedings – the options as to who will sit on the seat next to you are fairly limited. One option, which you may recently have heard about in the news, is to seek the assistance of a ‘McKenzie Friend’.
A McKenzie Friend is an individual who attends court to assist a litigant in person (i.e. a person who has not instructed a legal representative). Often, they are just that: friends of the litigant – or perhaps members of their family. Traditionally, McKenzie Friends would provide relatively limited assistance – such as making a note of what was being discussed, so the litigant could refer to it later – and were essentially there to provide moral support; however, a recent rise in the use of paid or ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends raises a number of questions about their effectiveness.
One example of this paid model was recently discussed in the LawGazette, you may have heard about such services on the radio – https://bit.ly/2RzXLqU . The main – and perhaps only – advantage advanced by some of these services is the fact that the fees they (currently) charge aim to be lower than those charged by a solicitor or barrister: for every £10,000 charged by a solicitor or barrister, they say, they will aim to charge just £1,000. Such statements do not make it clear that this is by no means a like-for-like comparison.
In addition to having been subject to six or more years of training, and ongoing professional development whilst in practice, solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. For you, as a client, this means that you can have confidence that you will receive a proper standard of service – as solicitors are duty-bound to act in the best interests of each client, and act with the utmost integrity. You will have no such guarantees with a McKenzie Friend, as they are not accountable to a regulatory body.
You might find that the things a McKenzie Friend is able to do for you are relatively limited, too: they may be able to assist you with filling in court application forms, but may not be able to give you substantive advice about what to include in the applications; they may be able to sit by your side in the courtroom, but might not be permitted to make arguments on your behalf. This is because conducting litigation and the exercise of ‘rights of audience’ (essentially an entitlement to be heard by the Judge dealing with your case) are reserved legal activities – which can only be exercised by legal professionals.
As Law Society president, Christina Blacklaws, recently highlighted, where McKenzie Friends are relied upon in place of solicitors there is a real risk that they will give bad advice, make bad arguments in Court (if permitted to do so) – or will fail to make good arguments – and that cases will fail where they should have succeeded. Perhaps most worryingly, if worst comes to worst, and you’re left at a disadvantage because of such errors, there may be little you can do. Whereas solicitors are required to have Professional Indemnity Insurance (meaning that there will be money available to compensate you in the unlikely event that you have cause to make a claim), there is no such requirement with McKenzie Friends.
The decisions which the Family Court makes can encompass the core issues in your private life; decisions in relation to whether your children will live with you, or whether you will remain living in the house that may have been your home for decades. When it comes to such important issues, don’t put your faith in the hands of an unqualified, unregulated individual; instructing a specialist divorce lawyer will give you the best chance of a positive outcome.
If you need help with your divorce or separation, then why not contact us for a Next Steps Divorce Advice Session and to see how we can help you. We can be contacted on:
Family Law Specialists Solicitors Newcastle: 0191 284 6989
Family Law Specialists Solicitors Sunderland: 0191 567 6667
or email us: email@example.com
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