Clients are facing an advice vacuum – they need any help they can get.
It’s rare that sifting through the comments under a Gazette story makes me think of the disaster movie 2012.
But this week was one of those occasions.
In the film, for some reason I can’t recall, the earth is imploding, and our heroes have a plane and a character with just a couple of hours’ experience in the air. It’s fly or die, and (SPOILER ALERT) they don’t die.
An unqualified pilot is a favourite comparison for readers angry at the growing influence and presence of paid McKenzie friends. Would you trust a pilot with no formal training to fly your plane? No? So why place your legal case in the hands of an amateur?
It’s a nice analogy, except for the fact it doesn’t quite work.
Sure, if I’m on the ground and have the choice of a pilot with a cut-glass accent and diploma in his pocket, or a spotty youth who flew on a Playstation game, I’ll choose the former.
But unrepresented clients are not on the ground, and they don’t have a choice. They are in the sky, with the plane in freefall, looking for someone – anyone – who can possibly land it safely.
When it’s an emergency, the fact that a potential pilot might be unqualified and lack experience is much less important than the need to survive. McKenzie friends are not, in general, as skilful and assured as solicitors. Of that there is no doubt. You’re also taking a big risk placing too much faith in someone who is unregulated.
But unrepresented people are in dire straits. Their government has pulled the funding rug from under them and solicitors cannot pull down their costs to meet them.
We should at least welcome attempts to self-regulate, with the new society for McKenzies insisting on PII cover and accreditation. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
If you want to get angry, get angry at a government that has made this happen. Perhaps even get angry at the Legal Services Consumer Panel, which for some reason thinks consumers are best served by unregulated advisers and has even provided office space for them to meet (surely placing question marks over its impartiality).
Even better than rage, solicitors’ firms would be better served finding a way to compete. Unbundling seems the best way to move into their space and cancel out the price advantage.
Attacking the natural product of the legal advice vacuum is to play the man and not the ball. McKenzie friends are simply the result of market forces and unless we change that market, they are here to stay.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter