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What is a McKenzie Friend?

For those seeking support in a court environment the concept of a ‘McKenzie friend’ has become an increasingly common option, especially in the case of family proceedings.

But what is a McKenzie friend? Through our Family & Children team, we explore what they are and what their role can be.

What is a McKenzie friend?

A McKenzie friend is an individual who can support somebody in court when they are unrepresented by a solicitor or other legal professional.

The concept derives from the case, McKenzie v McKenzie (1970). This was a divorce case where the husband could no longer afford the fees of his solicitor, so the firm sent someone for free to represent him in court. The person that was sent was not a lawyer in England and the court did not allow him to represent Mr McKenzie. When the case went badly, Mr McKenzie appealed to the Court of Appeal where they held that the judge had been wrong, and that Mr McKenzie should have been given permission to have assistance in the court. The Court of Appeal were clear that the individual was only there to prompt and make suggestions to the husband.

McKenzie friends have become quite popular since that case, especially when legal aid was cut in the majority of family law cases. Courts tended to take the stance that McKenzie friends were not only useful to the individual in need of support, but it would also benefit the justice system as they may be able to make the process quicker and more efficient.

What can a McKenzie friend do?

McKenzie friends can provide you with both emotional and practical support for hearings. Including:

  • Helping you prepare your court paperwork.
  • Making notes for you so that you can focus on the hearing itself.
  • They can pass notes over to you and/or quietly advise you, and generally just be there to provide you with some much-needed support during a potentially difficult and daunting time.

However, McKenzie friends cannot:

  • Speak on your behalf in court.
  • Interfere with proceedings.
  • Sign documents on your behalf.

McKenzie friends can be family or friends there to provide you with moral support, an individual volunteering, or a fee-charging McKenzie friend. However, the judge hearing the case will need to be notified of who your McKenzie friend will be and grant permission.

There has been an increase in fee-charging McKenzie friends. These can sometimes be individuals with a background in law, such as law students. However, more and more people who have gone through challenging private law proceedings themselves are then making a business or side hustle out of supporting others going through the same court proceedings – claiming that their personal matter provides them with the experience to advise and support others.

Speaking with that person and hearing that someone else has gone through something similar and found the process just as scary as you can be helpful. It can make you feel less alone. However, difficulties can arise around their qualifications, or lack thereof. There are individuals that are charging over £100 an hour for their services when they have little to no qualifications, and sometimes can bring more harm than good, despite their good intentions.

McKenzie friends are not regulated in the same way that law firms are. Therefore, if you are provided with advice by a McKenzie friend and this advice turns out to be wrong, or affects your case negatively, you are limited as to how you can challenge this legally. There are horror stories out there of people desperately seeking support and advice in relation to their proceedings and paying hundreds of pounds for their matter to be made even worse because the McKenzie friend they employed was not legally qualified, has provided them with the wrong advice, or behaved inappropriately due to their own personal opinions or experience.

However, we shouldn’t tar all McKenzie friends with the same brush though. There are those that are really helpful, supportive and can guide you in the right direction. For example, the Norfolk Community Law Service (NCLS). These are often law students volunteering to be McKenzie friends. They have some legal background and volunteer for this charity that has other Solicitors Regulation Authority regulated lawyers working there.

There are other fee charging McKenzie friends that are members of a professional institution, such as the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends, which is a voluntary self-regulatory body helping to protect consumers and courts. The members must be insured, have qualifications and comply with court rules and good practice. This provides a little more protection if things do go wrong.

Should you use a McKenzie friend?

If you are representing yourself in court proceedings, it can be incredibly challenging. If you can, we would always recommend you instructing a solicitor to represent you, who is qualified and experienced in court proceedings.

At Fosters Solicitors, we offer legal aid for those that are eligible so always check that first. For those that aren’t eligible, please get in contact with us about our fees and be honest about your financial situation, so that we can see if we can help support you. We can offer our clients a payment plan to help spread any cost.

If you have to or would prefer to represent yourself alongside a McKenzie friend, you should take steps to make sure they are reliable, experienced and trustworthy. If you are being asked to pay for their services, look into their qualifications, experience and why they became a McKenzie friend. If you can, try and obtain a McKenzie friend that is part of a professional institution where there is a recourse if you are provided with the wrong advice. If you live in Norfolk, consider contacting the NCLS way in advance of your hearing, as they may be able to provide you with a free legal advice session and look into whether they can support you as a McKenzie friend.

How we can help

Our experienced and empathetic Family Law team are available to provide expert and confidential support when you need it. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge in handling all aspects of family law and its complexities.

If you would like to see how we can help support you, please contact the Family Law team on 01603 620508 or complete the form below with your enquiry.

Full details of our Family Law services can be found here.

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    This article was produced on the 7th March 2024 by our Family & Children team for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.