The Legal Services Consumer Panel has begun an investigation into the emergence of ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends who charge litigants in person for their services, it has emerged.
The panel said that while such services are mostly prevalent in family law, it has come across providers who offer such assistance in criminal cases.
Some offer to act as lay advocates, subject to the judge granting them rights of audience on a case-by-case basis.
It is the latest issue to highlight the divide between regulated and unregulated legal advisers. Last year the panel expressed concern that struck-off solicitors are acting as McKenzie Friends, raising ethical concerns and providing a service that gives no recourse to the Legal Ombudsman.
The panel’s starting position is to recognise that professional McKenzie Friends are a feature of the legal system which is appearing to grow and that there is a lack of knowledge about this emerging market which would be useful to address.
Over the next few months the panel is to build a picture of the market, and next month plans to host a seminar to elicit views on what the main issues are and how they should be addressed.
Suggested policy responses include outlawing charging a fee for McKenzie Friend services, creating a blacklist or developing a self-regulatory solution.
A spokesman said: “One of the predicted implications of the legal aid changes is an increase in litigants in person and consequently an opportunity for McKenzie Friends to help fill the gap in legal representation which many people are unlikely to be able to afford.
“McKenzie Friends have traditionally operated as volunteers but we have identified an emerging market of individuals and microenterprises which charge for these services, perhaps at an hourly rate of £40 an hour upwards.
“There are mixed attitudes towards this development. One school of thought has concerns that these people may provide poor advice, offer little in the way of consumer protection, prey on the vulnerable, promote their own world view – for example, on parenting – and undermine lawyers’ reserved activity rights.
“The other says that some help for litigants in person is better than none at all, some McKenzie Friends are very competent and ethical, and that lawyers are not losing out because their services are unaffordable for the client group using these services.”
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