‘Professional’ paid McKenzie Friends associated with fathers’ rights groups (FRGs) play on their “uncertainty and sense of victimhood” to attract business, academic research has found, saying that there needed to be a code of conduct and a greater role for law school clinics in their place.
In an article for the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, Dr Angela Melville described the “significant minority” of professional McKenzie Friends associated with FRGs as “highly problematic”, as many of the men they helped were vulnerable, poorly educated and facing a divorce or separation with little support.
“In addition, some of these fathers may also feel that they have lost control over their ex-partner and children and believe that the family court and family lawyers are against them, and thus feel especially aggrieved and victimised.
“It appears that McKenzie Friends who align themselves with FRGs play on the uncertainty and sense of victimhood experienced by these fathers.”
McKenzie Friends were also accused of appealing to “familiar stereotypes, such as caricatures of the biased family court and self-interested adversarial lawyers.”
Dr Melville, senior lecturer at Flinders Law School in Adelaide, Australia, based her article on a study of 13 websites operated by English professional McKenzie Friends associated with FRGs and the social media sites linked to them.
On the websites, McKenzie Friends were described as “cost-effective” alternatives to lawyers, without the “sky high” fees.
“The websites also stressed that litigants do not receive value for money from lawyers, and instead litigants’ money would be spent at an alarming rate without achieving an outcome.
“There were also suggestions that lawyers are unscrupulous, and testimonials from former clients hinted, although did not explicitly state, that lawyers were only interested in fees rather than progressing a case.”
The other main criticism of lawyers they made was that they did not allow litigants to fully control cases. “While none of the websites directly accused lawyers of being biased against fathers, some presented lawyers as being unable or unwilling to achieve the outcomes wanted by fathers.”
Dr Melville accused paid McKenzie Friends of giving concern for the best interests of the child only “symbolic value”, with children’s interests “subsumed” by those of fathers.
“Beneath the veneer of reasonableness, some McKenzie Friends draw on misogynistic discourses that women are vindictive manipulators, who make up false allegations in order to block fathers from fully realising their rights over children.”
However, she went on: “While it is clear that the presence of McKenzie Friends aligned with FRGs may be highly disruptive, as well as potentially harmful to mothers and children, it is unlikely that legal aid will be restored.”
This meant that without additional support, litigants in person (LIPs) could be left in court to fend for themselves.
“Simplified procedures and documents, the greater use of digital resources, and improved guidance may provide some assistance, but is hardly likely to be enough.”
The academic said that rather than banning professional McKenzie Friends, it was better to extend the pool of regulated service providers who could help LIPs, for example by making more use law schools, some of which have already set up McKenzie Friends schemes, whereby law students work as McKenzie Friends under supervision of a qualified lawyer.
Dr Melville acknowledged that such developments have their critics, and are “a poor substitute for the safety net offered by a functioning welfare system”.
She referred to the Judicial Executive Board’s call for McKenzie Friends to agree to abide by a code of conduct, echoed by the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends.
“Arguably, extending the pool of non-lawyer providers and greater regulation will not necessarily completely prevent agenda-driven McKenzie Friends, but in an era without other options for support for LIPs, these may be the only realistic solutions.”
So unlike the Judicial Executive Board in a consultation paper last year, Dr Melville did not call for paid McKenzie Friends to be banned.
The reference for the article is: Melville, A. (2017) ‘Giving hope to fathers’: discursive constructions of families and family law by McKenzie Friends associated with Fathers’ Rights Groups. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 00, 1-27.