Your story by Max Walters concerning ‘rogue’ McKenzie friends (12 June) highlights disturbing issues in relation to rights of audience and the conduct of hearings in the courts.
We recently conducted a hearing at Slough County Court where the defendant was represented by two persons purporting to be from a firm of ‘property lawyers’, but it later transpired that neither was a solicitor, or a member of the bar or CILEx. The Legal Services Act 2007 makes it clear that only people with these qualifications are entitled to rights of audience and that anyone who purports to appear outside these provisions is guilty of a criminal offence. This carries a term of imprisonment and is also a contempt of court and punishable accordingly.
The matter was reported to the court itself and to the Law Society. Both were extremely concerned about the matter. It was also reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The SRA, within two days of the report, decided to disregard the incident. We pressed for the matter to be reviewed, whereupon the SRA, having considered it further, decided again to take no action.
It is a fundamental safeguard of the system of justice that those who appear in our courts can be relied upon to hold the appropriate statutory qualifications. Unless this is strictly observed and enforced, neither the court nor the parties can know where they stand in relation to the conduct of proceedings, or rely upon the statements made to the court or undertakings which may be requested or given. In our case the ‘lawyers’ who appeared did give undertakings which the court accepted but which they had no legal standing to make. The consequences of undertakings being dishonoured or breached by such ‘representatives’, against whom court or financial safeguards or insurance protection would be useless, are frightening.
The fact that the SRA is apparently willing to condone such conduct is astonishing and places the proper and vital functioning of our system at risk of collapse. It makes me despair of the state of my profession that so fundamental a rule is not being upheld, and renders meaningless the qualifications of those of us who have committed time, effort and financial resources to achieving them.
Given the current position in the courts, where unrepresented litigants now proliferate and unqualified persons purport to conduct, appear or participate in hearings, it is absolutely essential that all concerned – particularly the governing and disciplinary bodies – take urgent and immediate action to impose and enforce the tightest of sanctions. It must be made clear that breaches of the rules of the time-honoured system that we rely upon will not be tolerated.
Simon Bennett, Simon Bennett Solicitors, Maidenhead