By Dr Emma Hitchings, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).
In the wake of legal aid cuts, individuals in the midst of a family law dispute who cannot pay for legal representation are faced with a stark choice: settling the dispute outside of court or representing themselves as a litigant in person. However, a new market has emerged to plug this post legal aid funding gap: the fee-charging McKenzie Friend. A non-lawyer assistant who charges a fee for services provided to litigants in person.
Fee-charging McKenzie Friends are a current hot topic in the legal press. Only this week a fee-charging McKenzie Friend was jailed for perverting the course of justice in a private family law case and earlier this year the Judiciary conducted a consultation into the courts’ approach to McKenzie Friends.
In response to the ongoing debate, the Bar Council is currently funding research into the work that fee-charging McKenzie Friends do to support litigants in person in private family law cases. There is very little evidence about the background, skills and practices of fee-charging McKenzie Friends and there is no research on the factors underpinning litigants’ decisions to employ a fee-charging McKenzie Friend or on their experiences as McKenzie Friend clients.
I am part of the independent research team investigating what fee-charging McKenzie Friends do and what difference their support makes to people who deal with a family dispute without a lawyer. The project comprises three strands:
- Strand one involves in-depth interviews with fee-charging McKenzie Friends
- Strand two involves in-depth interviews with clients of McKenzie Friends
- Strand three involves observation of a number of private family law court hearings involving a fee-charging McKenzie Friend and linked interviews with those involved in the case (litigant, judge, McKenzie Friend, lawyer)
The team are currently in the process of recruiting clients of McKenzie Friends and would like to talk to individuals who have ever paid a fee for a McKenzie Friend to help them with a dispute about childcare arrangements or post-divorce financial arrangements. Potential participants can find out more information by visiting the following website: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/projects/view/410729-mckenzie-friends, or they can take part by sending an email to McKenzieFriends@cardiff.ac.uk.
The team expect to present the research findings in a final report due to be published in early spring 2017.