The Institute of Paralegals has called for looser restrictions on McKenzie friends in the interest of cheaper assistance, ’badly needed innovation’ and freedom of choice.
Responding to a consultation from the judiciary which proposes, among other things, a ban on paid McKenzie friends, the institute argues that the risk posed by McKenzie friends is ‘vastly outweighed’ by the harm faced by many litigants who are currently priced out the system.
The institute said McKenzie friends should be regulated and be given rights of audience and the right to conduct litigation.
It said: ‘We acknowledge the potential problems that extending the rights of McKenzie friends would bring, but we believe those future potential problems to be dwarfed by the current crisis of lack of access to justice.’
The response also queried the distinction the judiciary made between lawyers and McKenzie friends in its consultation.
The institute said that since the deregulation of professional legal services under the Legal Services Act 2007, the regulated sector has increasingly been mirrored by the fast-growing unregulated sector.
It said: ‘Many legal practitioners in the unregulated sector consider themselves to be lawyers, albeit unregulated ones… It is not regulation that makes a lawyer a lawyer, but the practice of law.’
But other responses to the judiciary’s consultation echoed calls from the Law Society and the Bar Council to ban fees.
The Forum of Insurance Lawyers warnes against the dangers of McKenzie friends becoming 'pseudo lawyers' if they are allowed to recover fees. It said this would prompt ‘serious issues’ around consumer protection.
The bar’s South Eastern Circuit said it accepts that McKenzie friends should be granted rights of audience in ‘limited’ circumstances. But it noted that anecdotal evidence suggests McKenzie friends are ‘routinely’ permitted to address the court on behalf of his or her ‘client’
It said that counsel who object are seen by the court as being ‘unhelpful’ or ‘unnecessarily standing on procedure’.
The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives said it was ’firmly against’ allowing McKenzie friends to charge, and called for reforms to be ‘expedited’.
CILEx said it was concerned about the delay in issuing the consultation. It said: ’In the meantime it seems that the difficulties that can be caused have become higher profile in the media. This has the potential to damage public trust and confidence in the justice system and those operating within it.’
Womens charity the Rights of Women also called for a remuneration ban, warning that the extension of services to legal advice and litigation support was ‘dangerous’ as McKenzie friends lack training and experience.
Meanwhile human rights group Justice said that fee-charging puts litigants in person at risk of ‘escalating bills’, as it said hourly billing creates a ‘clear risk of incentivising providers to "drag out" their work’.
Acknowledging that similar risks exist with professional advocates, Justice said the impact is greater for litigants relying on McKenzie friends, as litigants in person using their services are likely to be on lower incomes and attracted to the service because it is marketed at a low cost.