We need to talk about McKenzie Friends
If you need somebody to support you through the court system, then a McKenzie friend is an excellent idea. However, if that McKenzie friend asks for payment then you should run a mile.
McKenzie Friends are meant to be a helping hand, not a replacement for a lawyer
The paid McKenzie friend is a terrible idea, because you think you’re getting a professional service because you’re paying for it. In reality, you’re unlikely to get much better service than if you’d given your Aunt Hilda the £200 the McKenzie friend is charging.
Let me get the one obstacle to my argument out of way from the outset. Yes, I would say that paid McKenzie friends are a terrible idea because they are in direct competition with me. A fair point. But in response I should tell you something about me.
I take my duty to the court extremely seriously. Part of that duty is to assist unrepresented litigants to the extent that I am able without compromising my own client. What this means in practice is that I speak to the other side, I tell them what the hearing is about, I tell them what sorts of orders may or may not be made, and I state the law in a neutral way. I then put forward my client’s position and I act in the best interests of my client so that – as far as possible – my client gets what my client wants. I do not advise, but I do not throw up unnecessary roadblocks either.
Part of the reason I take that duty so seriously is because I recognise that the family court system is rough for somebody who is going it alone. It is a long process, it can be complex, and decisions need to be made at every stage which could affect the outcome of the proceedings. There needs to be justice, and I have to facilitate that. For those reasons I can see exactly why people seek representation. But let’s think critically about using a McKenzie friend instead of a lawyer.
A common scenario
You, as a litigant, put the call in to the solicitor to find out whether she can represent you and for how much. The answer is yes, but the fee is too much because your relationship has just broken down and you are now not only paying your half of the mortgage but your rent as well. In happier times the fee would have been affordable; but in happier times the solicitor would not have been needed at all.
So then the question is: what are the cheaper options? Going it alone has already been identified as the worst option, so there needs to be a step up. Enter the paid McKenzie friend.
The McKenzie friend tells you that it will be ok and that she is on your side. She’s helped lots of people like you and obtained very good results. She has never studied law, but she tells you that it’s fine because she’s dealt with difficult lawyers all of her life because in a former life she was a police officer. She tells you her fee is a mere £200 for the first hearing. She doesn’t tell you that it’s the first of at least three. She doesn’t tell you that she is uninsured, and she doesn’t tell you that she is not regulated. She doesn’t tell you that, unlike solicitors and barristers, she has no duty to act in your best interests.
So you turn up on the day of the hearing. Your partner is represented by a barrister. She didn’t bother getting a solicitor because money is tight for her too, but she found out that she could hire a barrister directly. The barrister speaks with you directly, and when you question why it is that she is not speaking to your McKenzie friend, she politely explains that you are the other party and so all communication should be with you for that reason. Your McKenzie friend objects, but the barrister holds her position. She also tells your McKenzie friend that she will invite the judge to bar the McKenzie friend from the court room or at least prevent her from addressing the court.
“Can she do that?!” you ask, shocked. In the court room you learn that yes, she can. It turns out that the judge thinks that it would useful for you to have some practical help, and so your McKenzie friend is allowed to stay. However, the judge is very clear that it is you who must do all the talking. The judge denies your McKenzie friend’s application for a right of audience, meaning that she is not permitted to address the court at all. That isn’t something you were expecting. You get asked questions you don’t know the answer to, whilst your ex’s barrister answers questions on her behalf. To say you find this unfair is an understatement, and you really wish you had somebody who could do the talking for you.
After the hearing you feel as though you’re not much further forward than when you started. You ask your McKenzie friend what you should do next. She tells you that you’ll just need to do what the judge told you to do in time for the next hearing. You explain that you didn’t mean what needs to be done for the court case; you mean “what the hell am I meant to do, because my ex is trying to stop me from seeing the kids altogether!”. Your McKenzie friend reminds you that she can’t give you legal advice and tells you to just make sure your witness statement is in on time.
Think twice before hiring a McKenzie Friend
The only advantage of hiring a McKenzie friend instead of a lawyer is cost. Whether you hire a solicitor, a barrister like me, or a combination of the two, that lawyer will always be your best option. Here is a snapshot of why:
Solicitors do excellent work, and they are paid a fair amount for that work. That fair amount will, inevitably, sometimes be too much for you to retain them throughout your case. If you are thinking of saving on cost then please think twice before hiring a McKenzie friend. They were never intended to be semi-professional lawyers. The McKenzie friend is meant to be a practical assistant and, maybe, a shoulder to cry on.
You can see from the table above that you will be better off by hiring a direct access barrister if you choose not to hire a solicitor. Perhaps just for the final hearing. Perhaps for some initial advice before you go it alone. Or perhaps for every hearing. You will almost certainly save money when compared to using a solicitor alone.
Shop around, but don't just decide on price alone
If money is the key thing (and it often is) then please do not take my word for it, but get some quotes and check for yourself. I am more than happy to provide a no-obligation quote to anybody seeking my services. As with much in life it is true to say: it’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little”. Stick with the experts.