County court backs law student McKenzie Friend scheme

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5 March 2015

Drake: legal advice centre of last resort

Drake: legal advice centre of last resort

Huddersfield County Court has backed a scheme in which local law students act as unpaid McKenzie Friends to help litigants in person.

Phil Drake, senior law lecturer at Huddersfield University, said duty solicitors at the court would approve suitable cases when the scheme launches later this month.

He said a district judge had briefed a group of around 20 students on how the court system worked, what they can and cannot do as McKenzie Friends and the purpose of being one.

After they acted as a McKenzie Friend, Mr Drake said district judges would give each student a brief feedback session on their performance and what they might do differently.

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He said Huddersfield University’s Legal Advice Clinic, based in the town centre, had seen “vast amounts of people” coming in who had no access to legal help and no means of paying.

Unlike other universities, the clinic is not based on campus but in a shop, next to a locksmith, which resulted in “quite a few walk-ins”.

Mr Drake said many were family cases, which were “hard hit” by the legal aid cuts, along with consumer, landlord and tenant, and “all manner” of other legal disputes.

The clinic is open only during the university terms, and within a few weeks of a new term beginning will become fully booked for the whole term.

“Where possible we refer people on – for example if they can get legal aid,” Mr Drake said. “We see ourselves as a legal advice centre of last resort. We’re here for those who can’t get help elsewhere. There are a substantial number of them.”

Mr Drake said a triage system operated at Huddersfield County Court, and a duty solicitor would have to confirm that a case is appropriate before a law student could act as a McKenzie Friend.

“The students shouldn’t be doing this,” he added. “People should be able to get access to justice. We are here because there is no help and the students have been the driving force.”

The role of McKenzie Friends has been under scrutiny in the last year after research done by the Legal Services Consumer Panel. In its response to the panel’s report, the Legal Services Board said it supported recognition of fee-charging McKenzie Friends as a “legitimate feature of the evolving legal services market”, but also called for safeguards.

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