So, what exactly is a McKenzie Friend ?
When people ask us what we do for a living, we often don't say McKenzie Friend, or at least not at first, because nobody knows what it means. It draws blank looks all round. We usually say “ I assist people who are going through the Family Court, and I advise parents who are trying to make arrangements for their children”. This invariably causes them to ask if we are lawyers, to which we of course say no, because we are not. Some McKenzie Friends are, or were, lawyers or have legal qualifications.
This is taken from Wikipedia and starts things nicely:
“A McKenzie friend assists a litigant in person in a court of law in England and Wales. This person does not need to be legally qualified. The crucial point is that litigants in person are entitled to have assistance, lay or professional, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Their role was set out most clearly in the eponymous 1970 case McKenzie v McKenzie.
Although in many cases a McKenzie friend may be an actual friend, it is often somebody with knowledge of the area, and the trend is heavily in favour of admitting McKenzie friends.“
But it still doesn't REALLY explain. The service offered by McKenzie Friends varies – some do it part-time, alongside their full time job and some, like us, do it as a full time role.
What a McKenzie Friend CAN do: (This list is not exhaustive)
We advise and support parents who contact us for free, whether or not they use us as a McKenzie Friend for Court purposes. Why free? Well, if we charged for advice we would be presenting parents with yet another barrier to getting the advice they need and this would be counter productive. The advice we give includes advice about how to try and communicate with an ex partner, and how to try and avoid taking the matter to Court (mediation/better communication etc).
We facilitate peer support through a network of parents via a closed group.
We advise parents on their next steps – whether that be right at the start, of if they approach me when proceedings are already underway.
We assist parents with the completion of forms, with writing statements, with drafting letters.
We accompany parents to Court, whereby we invariably assist the parent in speaking to the “other side”, or their legal representative, and help that parent to understand what is being said to them, what the terminology means, and ensure that they understand any Orders that are made.
In the case of long, complex, protracted proceedings or hearings which have a very highly contested (not agreed) final hearing, we will always advise the parent at this stage of the pros and cons around using traditional representation at this stage (solicitors and/or barristers), but if the parent chooses (or has no choice due to financial constraints etc) to conduct this hearing themselves we assist with the formulation of cross examination questions/statements/presentation of the case generally.
What a McKenzie Friend CANNOT do:
In Court, we are not permitted (usually) to address the Court directly in the way that a solicitor or barrister would. This is called “Rights of Audience”. In practice, many Judges will often address an McKenzie Friend themselves if they consider that their input will be helpful. But, a good McKenzie Friend will prepare you for this, and will help you to decide exactly what you want to say in Court before you go in. They will then be able to talk quietly to you in the hearing if anything is asked or said that you need to react to. An experienced McKenzie Friend may well be given the opportunity to cross examine the “other side” or address the Court directly if the Court considers it appropriate.
We cannot “conduct litigation” on your behalf. No McKenzie Friend should ever write a letter on your behalf to anyone nor contact anyone involved in your case by phone except in exceptional circumstances. They can of course help you to write letters yourself. Nor should they be “leading” your case and making decisions you are unhappy with or don't agree with. However, they should always give their best advice and be able to give cogent reasons for that advice.
Why might I choose to use a McKenzie Friend?
There are many reasons that parents come to us for assistance. Since Legal Aid disappeared for the majority of civil cases around 10 years ago, many many parents have found the costs involved in taking their family case to Court prohibitively expensive. There are lots of parents who can’t afford the hourly rate that solicitors and barristers charge, and whilst there is some controversy about the fact that McKenzie Friends are not regulated, we can prove invaluable to parents who otherwise would be facing the daunting prospect of going to the Family Court completely alone.
In addition there are some parents who actually prefer to self represent or be a “litigant in person” and use a McKenzie Friend for support as it makes them feel more in control of what is being presented to the Court about their children, rather than someone who doesn’t know them at all speaking on their behalf.
Many times we have gone to Court with parents and been thanked profusely by the “other side”, and the Court for our assistance.