A family charity has defended the role of professional McKenzie friends on the eve of a major study into their role in the court process.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel is preparing a report on the growing use of McKenzie friends, who help litigants in person during the course of a hearing.
Recent legal aid cuts have added to the emerging presence of paid advisers, but they remain unregulated and disquiet is growing among members of the legal profession about their growing influence.
Families Need Fathers, a charity helping parents who are estranged from their children, offers to put people in touch with professional McKenzie friends. Its chair, Jerry Karlin, said the service makes a positive contribution in helping litigants in person and reducing court delays.
He added: ‘The use of professional McKenzie friends by litigants representing themselves in family law proceedings has increased substantially in recent years. They can play a valuable role for those unable to afford access to formal legal representation or advice, a factor which has become ever more important since access to legal aid was restricted in 2013.’
Karlin said further regulation of professional McKenzie friends in the form of an accreditation or validation scheme may assist litigants, but stressed the court can already refuse a friend, and representatives are required to provide a CV to the court.
The consumer panel will start discussions on the subject with interested parties next week. The review will also trawl websites and interview professional McKenzie friends, lawyers and judges.
A spokesman said: ‘We want to achieve the right balance between access to justice and consumer protection. There are supporters and detractors of fee-charging McKenzie friends who point to the various benefits and risks facing consumers, so we need to find the right approach.’
Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, a member of the justice select committee, said the unregulated nature of the business gave him serious concerns. 'McKenzie friends are a time-honoured means where individuals could be assisted by others to prepare and present their cases,’ he said.
‘They were meant to be ’friends’ and their assistance voluntary to assist their acquaintance. I was shocked to learn of the growth of the professional McKenzie friends. As far as I can see the description of "professional" refers only to the fact the individual charges fees for such advice and assistance.’