A solicitor who became a professional McKenzie Friend after 20 years in practice, has hit out at the burden imposed on high street practitioners, which he said cost him almost £2m and pushed him into personal bankruptcy.
Adrian Berkeley, a family law specialist who was sole principal of Manchester practice Berkeley Solicitors until April 2015, now charges around a third of what he charged as a solicitor.
Although the suspension of his practising certificate that automatically followed bankruptcy has been terminated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, subject to conditions including that he can practise only as an employed solicitor, he said he has no plans to return to practice.
Speaking to Legal Futures, Mr Berkeley, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years, blamed a combination of factors, including professional indemnity premiums, legal aid cuts, higher court fees, reduced fees in personal injury work, and debt, for causing “insurmountable problems” in carrying on his high street practice.
In April, Mr Berkeley, who worked as a solicitor at Fentons Solicitors – now part of Slater & Gordon – for three years before setting up in sole practice in 1996, launched ABMF, a legal help and advice business.
He said the courts system was “cracking under the strain of litigants-in-person”. But when administrative staff heard he was a McKenzie Friend, they were unhelpful, saying: “Well, you’re not on the record then, I can’t talk to you”. He said this behaviour was “hopeless, but of course that’s the administration that we are in”.
Clients continued to receive the same quality service he delivered as a solicitor, he said, with the main differences being that he lacked indemnity insurance and could not act on their behalf.
“Clients understand they are having the benefit of my experience without the cost and that’s all they care about. I’m not insured but I won’t be doing anything for you – you will be doing it and I will merely be advising you.”
Mr Berkeley estimated that across more than 20 years of practise as a solicitor, he had spent nearly £2m on overheads. Eventually, the regulatory burden and other factors had forced him into bankruptcy.
Since then, former clients in his community tracked him down in such numbers that he identified an “unmet need for cheap legal services”, he said, adding: “The people that I represent can’t afford to pay solicitors fees and are just grateful to have somebody who’s there to help them.”
In general, he charged around a third of his former fees for legal help, although where once he offered wills as a loss leader at £35-50, he now charged £50-75. But he said he could advise on complex cases on a fixed fee for a fraction of what he would have charged.
He described what was involved in a typical case. “For example, I’ve got a Children Act matter where the client needs an injunction to stop the father removing the child. For the whole thing I’ll charge £1,000, plus they pay whatever court fees are payable.”
“So it’s the whole matter… You’re looking at the whole day to start it off and one maybe two visits to court, which will be one or two hours a time.”
Working as a solicitor, he would have charged “between £3,500 and £5,000”.
Mr Berkeley said he had few regrets. “I’ve got my practising certificate back now, so I could go for another job as a solicitor. But do I really want to?
“Instead, I can work for myself, I can deal with the clients which at the end of the day is what I like doing. So I can continue doing the same thing and hopefully make a living at it.”
Working as a McKenzie Friend was different, he said. “I go to the clients, I pick them up, I take them to the court and into the courtroom. I brief them beforehand. Then I take them home from court and debrief them afterwards. If I didn’t, they would have understood nothing of what went on.”
His experience was that court staff are confused when they see he is qualified. “They say to you ‘what’s your standing?’ You say ‘McKenzie Friend’. So they say ‘right, fill in the form’.
“And then they say ‘I see you are a solicitor, so you’re acting for the client?’ ‘No I’m not, I’m a McKenzie Friend’. ‘But you can’t be a solicitor and be a McKenzie Friend’.”
Mr Berkeley said that where he could not provide assistance himself, he would help clients find the “correct solicitor” or direct access barrister.