McKenzie Friends provide “biased and misleading advice” to people caught up in family court disputes, a new study has claimed.
McKenzie Friends are courtroom advisors who work with ‘litigants in person’ (LiPs): people who represent themselves during a court case, usually because they cannot afford legal representation. Despite their role, they do not need legal qualifications. Some charge fees while others work purely informally.
Without legal qualifications McKenzie Friends cannot address the Judge while in court unless they are invited to do so. But they are allowed to provide advice to the litigant and help with note-taking and court papers.
A team from Birmingham City University used linguistics software to analyse more than 100 discussions about different aspects of family law on Facebook, along with just under 70 similar discussions conducted on other sites.
McKenzie Friends participating in the discussions made disparaging remarks about judges, the family courts and social services, insisting that they were unfair, “gender-biased”, “stupid” and a “disgrace”.
One McKenzie Friend claimed that the courts were “broken” and “not family orientated”, while another insisted that the family courts “routinely” ignored child abuse.
Other Friends encouraged litigants to ignore any official legal advice they may have received. Some suggested they could provide “proper” legal advice despite their lack of qualifications.
The researchers concluded:
“McKenzie Friends’ non-conciliatory tone and occasional animosity expressed towards the legal profession and the court system could potentially be misleading for LiPs.”
“One of the crucial roles of lawyers is to manage their clients’ expectations and responsibilities, i.e. promote active engagement with court proceedings and social services.”
Lead research Dr Tatiana Tkacukova added:
“… the unregulated environment online means that our research found several instances of worrying, biased and misleading advice. The negative portrayals of the courts and social services, alongside the advice to ignore specialised legal advice, show a worrying trend towards personal viewpoints and agendas clouding impartial and objective support.”
The term ‘McKenzie Friend’ derives from a 1971 divorce case in which a Mr McKenzie received informal assistance from a barrister on the first day of proceedings. The judge then excluded the barrister from the second day and this decision became a successful grounds for appeal when the Judge ruled against the husband.
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