Financial pressures are driving some family lawyers to act as McKenzie friends as an extension of their unbundled services, the new chair of family law group Resolution has told the Gazette.
Nigel Shepherd, a partner at national firm Mills & Reeve, said some family lawyers are acting as paid McKenzie friends alongside their traditional role for clients who cannot afford to pay for their solicitor services.
He said the development is a ‘concern’ and noted that the ‘swapping of hats’ is very difficult for family lawyers. The evolution is a result of tough economic times practitioners in this sector are now facing, he added.
‘It is rare, but it is an example of the changing environment that we are operating in. Everybody is having to look for different ways of keeping things going,’ said Shepherd.
The judiciary has proposed a ban on fee-charging McKenzie friends as part of a consultation on the sector.
Shepherd said that while it would be wrong to categorise all McKenzie friends as a nuisance, the blurring of their roles presents a difficulty. He said: ‘In the current climate, where people are unable to pay or are choosing not to pay for independent legal advice, it is natural for that gap to be filled.’
While he is not greatly concerned about whether McKenzie friends should be paid, he does worry that some are stepping outside their intended role of assisting a litigant.
The role of McKenzie friends was a recurrent topic at last week’s Resolution conference, as the rise in the number of litigants in person in family courts has left many parties relying on advice from unqualified people.
Rachel Hudson, designated family judge for Northumbria and North Durham, agreed that there should be restrictions on what McKenzie friends are allowed to do. She said: ‘For me a McKenzie friend is there to provide support and assist, not as a representative and not to present the case.’
But Sir Paul Coleridge, a retired High Court judge and founder of the Marriage Foundation, noted that some McKenzie friends are very useful in helping to progress cases.
He said: “McKenzie friends come in all shapes and sizes. Some are extremely helpful and reasonable […] I would let them more or less do whatever they want.’ However, he admitted others ‘have an agenda… and can be very disruptive’.