Lay advisers have historically been met with suspicion and sometimes hostility inside the Family Court, but the judiciary’s latest Consultation
on McKenzie Friends examining their status and place inside the system is the perfect opportunity to embrace this new form of assistance, and to acknowledge the part it is playing in shaping the future of family law.
Legal aid cuts, ongoing austerity measures and falling incomes have all contributed to the stark rise in families representing themselves during the life of their own cases. That the majority of parties in the family courts will be self-represented, or Litigants in Person, has become an accepted inevitability, with the judiciary scrambling to modernise and simplify the hearing process in part to accommodate parents without solicitors or barristers to assist them. At the same time, lay advisers, sometimes referred to as McKenzie Friends, have started to fill the representational gap by offering guidance, support and advocacy to families unable to afford conventional legal help or meet the narrow criteria to access legal aid. This change inside the courts has not gone unnoticed by the judiciary who, concerned that this kind of support unchecked could lead to abuses, published a consultation in February 2016, which makes several proposals.
Replacing the term ‘McKenzie Friend’ with the term ‘Court Supporter’
The language used to describe lay advisers is hugely important. Any term which seeks to isolate lay advice from conventional advice, whilst well meaning, would create an unwelcome apartheid within a society which views legal representation as a fundamental right. In the eyes of the law, all representation is viewed as equal, regardless of whether a lawyer is newly qualified or has been practicing for many years. The same must apply to the McKenzie Friend sector, which, like the legal sector, is made up of individuals with differing levels of experience and qualifications.
The term ‘Court Supporter’ could also be viewed as derogatory by lay advisers themselves and could lead to McKenzie Friends being treated as second class citizens within the court arena. Whilst their level of training and path into advocacy may differ to that of conventional lawyers, McKenzie Friends are still required to abide by the current codes of conduct in place, to prepare and present evidence to the court and when granted rights of audience, to speak before a judge and present their client’s case. Some McKenzie Friends have had extensive experience in court with their own cases and are often better versed in procedure and law than junior lawyers. To classify McKenzie assistance as support rather than a service, even indirectly, does not take into account the nuanced world of the McKenzie sector.
Legal assistance in whatever form it takes is a cornerstone of our justice system and lay advice deserves to be viewed as a welcome addition of equal worth to conventional representation. There is merit though in initially allowing a distinction to be made between advisers who do not work for a law firm or chambers, and those that do. However, that line also appears to be blurring, with solicitors taking on dual roles as both McKenzie Friends and conventional lawyers, offering essentially the same services but restricting that service and lowering costs for parties opting to hire the lawyer in their capacity as a McKenzie Friend. This is an important area the Consultation should also seek to address, as this conscious limitation on services offered as part of a McKenzie package could lead to clients being poorly represented in the short term and create potential miscarriages of justice in the long term, a working practice that does not exist amongst original lay advisers. A term like 'Court Adviser' or 'Lay Lawyer' then, could perhaps be used instead of McKenzie Friend.
Developing Rules of Court, and Clear Guidance relating to McKenzie Friends
This section of the Consultation makes several proposals which include replacing the present Practice Guidance with Rules of Court, implementing different standards for granting rights of audience for Family Court applications and civil applications, and creating a Code of Conduct for McKenzie Friends.
In line with an inclusive and supportive approach to lay advice, replacing the current Guidance with Rules of Court would ensure that McKenzie assistance is further embedded into mainstream representation and would allow judges and other parties to proceedings to familiarise themselves with lay representation, too. Increased familiarity would help to tackle suspicion and the sometimes visible irritation the presence of a McKenzie Friend can cause in court, despite there being no conclusive evidence that LiPs and their advisers cause delays inside the system.
McKenzies can also seek out rights of audience, and as with court attendance, a process which clearly defines the grounds upon which a judge might approve or turn down such an application would be helpful, and democratic. Alternatively, as with lawyers, McKenzie Friends could perhaps be given automatic court attendance and rights of audience, denied only if the McKenzie refuses to conduct themselves properly during hearings. McKenzies could notify the judge beforehand that they wish to either attend and, or, speak before the judge and could offer the judge a CV or information on which McKenzie group or association they work for, if any.
A universal code of conduct and working guide for McKenzies, written in plain language, which clearly defines what McKenzie Friends can do, how judges should treat them, and the process by which lay advisers can come before the court and seek out rights of audience, is another alternative. Taking inspiration from the current guidelines, allowing McKenzie Friends who wish to attend court to ask the judge’s permission beforehand is one way of ensuring McKenzies are included in the process and know where they and their clients stand, preferably in good time should the client need to seek out another McKenzie Friend or be briefed by their current lay advisor should they have to attend court without them. Guidelines for judges too, on how they might approve such an application would be welcome so that lay advisers can understand why their application may have been turned down, and to ensure transparency in the process.