Tag Archives: family law

Cowboys of the wild west? — Some context on the influence of fee-charging McKenzie Friends in family law

By Dr Leanne Smith, Senior Lecturer in Law (School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University) and Dr Emma Hitchings, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

© Christopher Dombres

In mid June 2017, the report of our Bar Council commissioned research on fee-charging McKenzie Friends in private family law cases was published (the full report can be accessed here and an executive summary here).

One of the report’s key messages is that we found little evidence of McKenzie Friends seeking to exercise rights of audience on a regular basis and plenty of evidence that the bulk of the work done by McKenzie Friends is done outside of court. The work McKenzie Friends do in court, we said, is ‘the tip of the iceberg’. This was the finding that the Pink Tape blog outlining Lucy Reed’s perspective on the research focused on, indicating that it was not at all surprising. We hope we can be forgiven here for indulging in a few words in defence of the utility of the research.

We readily accept that many in the legal professions have been aware for some time that paid McKenzie Friends operate predominantly outside court, but research has an important role to play in interrogating anecdotal evidence and providing more systematically derived evidence in order to validate or debunk it.  This is no less true because perceived experience is validated by a set of results. In this instance, our hope is that the findings of the research will function as a turning point for discussion on the subject of fee-charging McKenzie Friends in a way that the observations of some professionals who encounter them has not. In addition there are, of course, some more granular observations that we consider important buried in our report, though we will resist spoilers for those who haven’t yet finished reading it…

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Dicta… Dictators and Law

By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).

One key piece of knowledge all law students are expected to grasp early on in their legal career is the difference between what a judge says – dicta or obiter dicta and what a case means – the ratio or ratio decidendi. Even when they know the difference, students and practising barristers often prefer to reach for a quotation from a case. It can be comforting to use a well-rounded phrase from Smith J or Jones LJ and it may at first glance suggest wisdom when it really is just about memory. However, reliance on dicta is a really bad habit, does not make better lawyers and can seriously undermine what the law means.

In the hands of some judges dicta are powerful ways of communicating ideas – judicial soundbites – which make the case and the judge memorable. Lord Denning was a past master at this, making it easy to remember the facts of cases, but not always the law. Indeed Lord Denning’s skill with language enabled him to make or even make up law. Of course he was largely dealing with Common Law, developing contract and tort law rather than interpreting statute. Continue reading

Researching fee-charging McKenzie Friends in private family law cases

By Dr Emma Hitchings, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

suffolk-county-family-lawyerIn 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. Continue reading

Ellie Butler: child welfare v parents’ rights

By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).

© PA

© PA

In all the commentary on the tragic death of Ellie Butler, there has been very little discussion of the decision made to return Ellie to her parents. This was a truly exceptional decision. Ellie had been living with her grand-parents, her special guardians, for 5 years. She had not lived with her mother since she was admitted to hospital at the age of 6 weeks and never lived with her parents together. Indeed her parents only started living together shortly before she was returned to them. Ellie had had very little contact with her parents; contact had been limited by the court and the mother and father did not attend many of their contact sessions. The people who parented Ellie were her grand-parents; she and her parents hardly knew each other.

Special guardianship orders (SGOs) were introduced in 2002 to provide a framework for permanent care where adoption was not appropriate where children were being cared for within their wider family, as Ellie was, also for older children who have enduring relationships with parents who cannot care for them. Approximately 7,000 SGOs are made each year, around 5,000 in child protection proceedings and 2,000 for children who are not in state care. Continue reading

The cost of using the Family Court

By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).*

Proposed-£75-increase-to-possession-claim-court-feeThe Family Court system costs a lot to run. Until 2008 much of the cost of running the courts came from taxes, but increasingly litigants are expected to foot the bill. So the court system cannot be thought of as simply part of securing a Just Society, like the Police, the Armed Services and Parliament, all of which are paid for from taxes. Rather courts exist as a service for those who want to litigate.

Court fees have been raised repeatedly, and for some types of proceedings, including divorce, actually exceed what it costs to provide the service. The court fee for divorce is £550. Applicants for divorce subsidize other cases where the full economic cost cannot be charged. The courts have a monopoly over divorce, which is secured by the criminal law! Remarrying whilst still married is a crime – bigamy.

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