Can lawyers and McKenzie Friends co-exist?

Can we co-exist?

My blog post: Dispelling the McKenzie Friend myths… and a Twitter troll hit 3 milestones. 

  1. It received more traffic than any other post
  2. It accounted for over a third of the total visitor traffic to my website last month and
  3. It generated the first ever comments on my blog

But rather than basking in the glow of blog-induced euphoria, I want to use it as a catalyst – to discuss the wider issues relating to McKenzie Friends, and our place in the legal services market.

Animosity from the legal profession

The continued animosity from some quarters of the legal profession is well-known and some lawyers have made a point of publishing negative material about McKenzie Friends.

Much of the narrative focuses squarely on a few favoured themes including, but not limited to: money, motives and regulation.

For example, a contact of mine recently sent me a link to a post he had found on a law firm’s website.  The writer of the post discussed, in fairly heated terms, his view of fee-charging McKenzie Friends.  While I will not give that firm any publicity via this blog, I will say this:  legal professionals need to focus on the business of providing services to their clients and stop looking over their shoulders to point a generically accusatory finger at McKenzie Friends. 

This is not going to be a rant about the legal profession.  It is instead an attempt to open up a fruitful dialogue.  And as a writer by background, I am compelled to use this channel to respond to the rhetoric that I am hearing time and time again.

There are good and bad apples in every profession

Yes, there are McKenzie Friends who charge a lot, but there are some who charge little or nothing at all.  Some do a good job and others do a not-to-good job.  Some are highly experienced while others are less so.  But these points could be applied to almost any field of economic activity, including the provision of services. 

It is also true that there is no overall regulation of McKenzie Friends (although McKenzie Friends must adhere to the current Civil and Family Court Guidance).  While I can not speak for every single McKenzie Friend, I am sure that like me, most would welcome some form of regulation.  In the meantime, many of us have decided to do the next best thing; become a member of one or more self-regulatory organisations.

Another argument put forward by the lawyer-blogger was that McKenzie Friends are opportunists; the inference being that, having created a particular situation, we are now benefitting from it.  In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. 

The legal landscape has changed

The legal landscape has changed dramatically since 2012/13.  For example, cuts mean that the majority of those now dealing with their family law case are unlikely to qualify for financial assistance in the form of legal aid.  Those who can not pay for legal representation but need the courts to resolve a family matter will have no option but to try to find ways to cut their costs or go to court alone

The New Law Journal reported in December 2018 that there is a shortage of judges and that unprecedented numbers of judges must be recruited across all courts over the next 2 years.  The shortage of judges means delays in securing hearing dates and results in longer waiting times in court. 

Each year, the number of litigants in person (those going to court without legal representation) increases.  According to figures made available to the Justice Select Committee in January 2019, during the financial year 2017/18, only 36% of parties in private family law cases were recorded as having a legal representative.  Delays are inevitable during the hearings for such cases because judges are obliged to spend time explaining what is happening.

Courts have also been hit by thousands of staff job cuts and overall cuts in spending.

McKenzie Friends are not to blame for this current state of affairs, but we can help.

“I have walked a mile in your shoes”

Those who need help with their case need to have alternatives. 

There are a number of options available including legal advice clinics and the excellent witness service volunteer service (which I have used personally).

Increasingly, clients are seeking out McKenzie Friends and they are finding us in all sorts of interesting ways: through word of mouth, online search, personal referral, to name but a few.  There is a need and an ongoing role for McKenzie Friends.  We are part of the legal landscape and should be allowed to co-exist alongside legal representatives and other legal services.

I know and celebrate the reasons why I do this work (and why I chose not to pursue a career as a solicitor). I enjoy helping to make life easier for a client and it is rewarding when I can see or hear a client relax as I carefully and calmly gather information and share my knowledge, as we work together on the best way forward.

I say to clients: “I have been where you are now, and I understand.  I have walked a mile in your shoes.”  And I can say that because it is true.

Copyright © Going to Court Alone – Debbie Thomas

Image by Pixabay

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