MPs have called on the government to consult on whether there should be formal regulation of McKenzie Friends, whether or not they charge fees.
In its report published yesterday, the justice select committee said it was concerned by increasing numbers of McKenzie Friends in the courts and said encouraging their use “may in some circumstances amount to a counsel of despair”.
MPs warned that individuals who “could not afford properly regulated legal advice and feel unable to adequately put their own case could find themselves disadvantaged if relying inappropriately on people without legal qualifications.”
In a highly critical report on the civil legal aid cuts contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), the committee said one of the results was that courts needed more funding to cope with the rise in litigants in person (LiPs).
Recommending that “some of the underspend from the civil legal aid budget” should be used for that purpose, MPs said concerns had also been raised during evidence sessions about services provided to LiPs by ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends.
The Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, told the committee that paid McKenzie Friends, unlike lawyers, did not owe a duty to the court, and there was “no regulatory body at the moment to regulate them”.
Nicholas Lavender QC, former chairman of the Bar Council, and Andrew Caplen, president of the Law Society, highlighted the lack of redress if McKenzie Friends made mistakes, the danger of poor quality advice and lack of training.
However, Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, told the committee that McKenzie Friends were “an example of litigants in person moulding the legal services market around themselves”. The panel recommended self-regulation for McKenzie Friends, “echoing the Civil Justice Council’s view that there should be a code of conduct”.
Justice minister Shailesh Vara said the government was “looking at and monitoring” the issue of McKenzie Friends, but had no plans to introduce regulation.
The justice committee accepted that the “very wide range of roles undertaken by McKenzie friends presents challenges for any attempt at regulation”.
It pointed out that “regulation of McKenzie friends holding themselves out as quasi-legal advisors would protect the litigants they are advising but could be viewed as giving them an inappropriate level of authority”.
However, MPs said they were concerned by the growing numbers of McKenzie Friends in the courts and concluded: “We recommend the government consider and consult on whether there should be formal regulation of McKenzie friends who could be classed as engaging in professional activity, whether fee-charging or not.”
While accepting there was no “silver bullet” to deal with the complex problems raised by LiPs, the committee said it agreed with the Low Commission that a “comprehensive approach to legal information is absolutely crucial to ensuring litigants in person are able to represent themselves effectivelys”.
The committee added: “We recommend the development of a one-stop legal helpline able to divert inquirers to other services, whether online or over the telephone, or to assist with their inquiries.
“In particular, the helpline should be able to divert people to legal aid providers in cases where legal aid is available.
“This appears to us to be a cost-effective way to improve access to justice for litigants in person as well as being a significant step towards ensuring that people eligible for legal aid are able to access it.”