McKenzie friends are providing ‘worrying’ advice which is biased against courts and solicitors, a university study has found.
According to Leeds Law School and Birmingham City University, McKenzie friends – individuals who support (but must not represent) litigants on a paid or voluntary basis – have advised people to ignore or act against the advice of their lawyers and have suggested that courts are institutionally unfair.
The study, conducted by Dr Tatiana Tkacukova and Professor Hilary Sommerlad, looked at online advice provided on 170 Facebook threads by 30 McKenzie friends. It found that online advisers often delivered biased suggestions reflecting personal anti-court and anti-social services views.
McKenzie friends described family courts as ‘gender-biased’ and a ‘disgrace’ and, of all the material analysed, only one positive description of a judge was found. On three occasions parents were advised to write their own statement instead of following specialist legal advice.
Dr Tkacukova, the project's principal investigator and senior lecturer in English literature at Birmingham City University, said: 'While there are many positive experiences, the unregulated environment online means that our research found several instances of worrying, biased and misleading advice.
‘To help protect the many vulnerable people in these cases, we need to see a move towards a more regulated environment with increased transparency to make sure that people know the information they are accessing and the legal qualifications of those advising them.’
In her inaugural speech as Bar Council chair last week, Amanda Pinto said she was ‘very concerned’ by the rising number of paid McKenzie friends who are ‘unregulated, untrained and yet demand money for their intervention – often from the most vulnerable litigants’.
Law Society president Simon Davis said: ‘McKenzie friends are unregulated and the term covers a multitude of informal roles, so there is no centralised data we know of that shows how many people are assisted in this way, but as legal aid cuts bite deeper and more people are forced to deal with legal problems without a solicitor, unscrupulous McKenzie friends may take advantage of an unmet need.’